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Wayne State receives grant to reduce emissions of toxic substances by power plants into the Great Lakes

August 22, 2013

DETROIT — A team of Wayne State University researchers are working on a technology that could quickly and significantly reduce the emission of mercury and other toxic substances by power plants into the Great Lakes basin.

Carol Miller, Ph.D., P.E., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University's College of Engineering, and co-Director of the Urban Watershed Environmental Research Group (UWERG) at WSU, recently received a two-year, $557,000 grant from the Great Lakes Protection Fund for the project, titled “Real-Time Energy Impact Monitors for Residential, Industrial and Policy Use.”

Her team will refine, test and market a novel technology that interacts with power grids to precisely estimate the emissions associated with current power uses and signals when cleaner forms of energy are available. That technology, Locational Emissions Estimation Methodology (LEEM), was pioneered in a project previously supported by the fund.

LEEM gleans information from independent system operators, which operate regional power grids, to determine — in real time — the fuel sources (such as coal, natural gas, nuclear power and wind) used to generate electricity and the emissions from those sources, and then provides users the ability to reduce emissions by changing the timing of their electricity use.

“No matter where you are or what time of day, this technology will be able to tell you the marginal emissions associated with electricity use for car battery recharging, dishwasher use, clothes dryer cycling and other common activities,” Miller said. “That’s important for consumers to know, because energy use and damaging emissions are not directly related. Without the information regarding real-time emissions, you might make decisions to reduce energy use at certain times in hopes of reducing polluting emissions, while actually shifting your use to a time where the emissions are more detrimental to the environment.”

In previous work with the fund, Miller’s team developed a fully functional alpha version of LEEM and deployed it in two distinct software products: Home Emissions Read-Out (HERO) and Pollutant Emission and Pump Station Optimization (PEPSO).

HERO is a smart phone and web application that turns individual users into active participants in emissions optimization by giving them real-time emissions estimations that allow them to selectively time their own electricity use. PEPSO is a software program designed to optimize pump operations at water utilities by using an existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hydraulic model in combination with a team-designed optimization algorithm that incorporates LEEM. 

Miller’s previous project involved designing algorithms that automatically direct pumps to operate at times when the electric power grid is supplied by the cleanest available sources of energy, and avoid times when it is supplied by more polluting sources. The software was pilot tested using the DWSD water distribution system.

The current project will explore the potential for embedding LEEM technology into “smart” appliances and building systems, integrating it into the electric vehicle market, and working with regulators to incorporate it into energy standards and programs. Miller’s team will refine and pilot the LEEM technology, research the market with help from manufacturers and trade organizations, engage customers, and develop a marketing strategy for large-scale adoption of the technology. If successful, the future will see LEEM embedded in a suite of products and services.

“This technology focuses on demand-side management of energy usage and puts choices in the hands of consumers,” Miller said. “Even if you don’t have an interest in the environment per se, businesses and water utilities can still use LEEM to be savvier about their emissions because of potential future regulations. And for individual consumers, some big home electricity uses — such as charging electric cars — are coming online very soon.”

Miller said the project’s environmental benefits could be felt in the very near future around the eight-state Great Lakes region, with possible expansion of the methodology to the rest of the United States and Canada.

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research institutions in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu