The Time for Progress is Now

How UPenn Uses Blockchain To Incentivize Sustainable Energy Use

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Like many colleges across the country, The University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) currently has few students on campus due to the impact of COVID-19. Assistant Professor of Architecture, Dorit Aviv is taking advantage of all those empty dorm rooms to establish an innovative sustainability project based on Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technology.

With help from Ripple’s University of Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI), Aviv’s team is busy installing sensors that can monitor each student’s energy and environmental performance. The resulting data is then tracked by a blockchain system that allows anyone who opts-in to view their own performance statistics via a personalized dashboard, while preserving their anonymity.

“Students on campus were asking us ‘how do we know how much energy each of us consumes?’” she explains. “There was no way to really know that data. Building a blockchain network to support IoT sensors allows us to now provide the individual user data on energy performance that many students want.”

Aviv’s initial interest in blockchain came about through a research project on designing more energy efficient data centers. After discovering the extraordinary energy consumption of crypto mining farms, she wondered if blockchain technology could be used to incentivize saving energy instead.

Her project partner Professor William Brown is UPenn’s Head of the Center for Environmental Building and Design. He was already exploring ways to bring energy monitoring data to individual students and Aviv’s suggestion to use blockchain technology provided a critical missing piece of the puzzle.

As soon as they’re allowed back on campus, many UPenn students will have the option to know exactly how much energy they are using at any given time and understand which activities or times are the most energy intensive. Dorit believes that giving individuals this information will encourage them to be more thoughtful about how they consume energy, while also adding a competitive edge to conservation.

“We’ve created a points system that not only shows you how you have been performing over time,” she says, “you can compare yourself with other users. It’s about making people competitive about their performance. By incentivizing them to earn the most points and therefore save energy, we can help the university achieve its sustainability goals.”

The value of the project will only grow once information about energy use starts rolling in. The blockchain network is built for scale and UPenn is already collaborating with another university to extend the use case beyond energy monitoring. 

A group of engineering undergraduates are interested in applying machine learning to the data in order to uncover large-scale learnings about UPenn’s energy use. Dorit also believes that other departments at the university will be able to use the blockchain network as a platform for a range of experiments and research projects.

“We can see people plugging in to the network that have very different incentives or interests,” she concludes. “Someone might want to connect a robot they’ve built or an economics student may build a new model for token distribution on it. How this will evolve is really exciting, so thanks to UBRI for funding and supporting this project.”

Listen to the latest episode from UBRI's podcast, All About Blockchain for more.

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