Energy awareness app earns two ACEP students prestigious award

In late-February this year, Nicole Mah anxiously awaited the results of her first attempted grant proposal - an application for the 2023 Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award. On the day the award application was due, she emailed and chatted with ACEP’s data governance lead Vanessa Raymond to put the finishing touches on the budget justification. At 8pm she decided to call it good enough and send it in. “Wish me luck,” she texted over ACEP’s discord server.

When the date for the award announcement passed a few weeks later, the applicants heard nothing. Nicole was deflated. “I guess we didn’t get it! I worked so hard on that. And we never heard anything back.” But a week later, she saw the following email in her inbox:

Congratulations Nicole and Tuva, a panel of faculty and engineering professionals has selected your Energy Awareness App as the winner of the Dr. Alex Hills Engineering and Civic Engagement Award!

Nicole and her project partner Tuva Granøien learned about the award from their UAA Computer Science professor, Dr. Frank Witmer. After presenting their senior Capstone project, a Community Energy Awareness App for the community of Kotzebue, part of a research project with PI Dayne Broderson funded by the Denali Commission, Witmer thought their project would be a good candidate for the award. Dr. Witmer shared,

I had asked all the students to consider applying for the award but this project with ACEP did seem most applicable and so I encouraged them to go for it. It’s a good experience for them, and itrsquo;s an important project for Kotzebue. As part of the Capstone class, we discuss ethical and social impacts of computing and I encourage students to make positive community contributions. I want to support computer science students reaching out and connecting with communities whenever I can.
Nicole Mah, UAA computer science senior
Nicole Mah, UAA computer science senior
Tuva Granøien, UAA computer science  senior
Tuva Granøien, UAA computer science senior

While this award doesn’t typically go to software engineering projects, the app had both the engineering component and a clear civic engagement focus. The app will present a community’s energy resources and real-time usage to community members so that they can see where their electricity comes from, any hour of the day. Apps like this are becoming more relevant as communities diversify their energy resources and incorporate more renewable sources and battery storage.

Described by caption and credit below image
Photo by Amanda Byrd, ACEP
View of Kotzebue’s wind and solar farm.

In the case of Kotzebue, their power is coming from wind, solar, and nonrenewable resources. By adding a battery to their system, Kotzebue Electric Association has expanded their capacity and created dispatchable loads to store renewables for times when they can be used to augment or reduce the reliance on fossil fuels, and potentially lower the cost of energy for their community. ACEP researchers have and continue to work with Kotzebue community partners on multiple research efforts, including cutting-edge solar bifacial array research, electric vehicles, home energy heating, and microgrid modeling for increased renewables integration.

Nicole and Tuva wanted to create an app that is easy to use, clear and informative, and visually pleasing. In a design sprint for the app, Tuva and Nicole decided they wanted the users of the app to feel something when they used this app - to feel inspired, to feel that their actions matter, and to feel informed about their community’s energy resources. They researched other apps that made them feel similarly, including the app GasBuddy for identifying the cheapest gas near you, and ElbilAppen, an app for finding EV chargers from Tuva Granøien’s home country of Norway.

Screenshots of the Community Energy Awareness prototype provided by computer  science students Nicole Mah and Tuva Granøien
Screenshots of the Community Energy Awareness prototype provided by computer science students Nicole Mah and Tuva Granoien

Nicole and Tuva want the app to be always current, with the latest data available to show users what is happening right now in their community. But, like other energy graphs available to customers from utilities across the world, they want users to be able to look backwards through time, too, perhaps to a storm event or to when there were sunny days to understand how their utility was able to take advantage of, or respond to, weather and other factors affecting power.

It takes a research center… to build a web application

Over the course of designing their first features for the app, Nicole and Tuva connected with ACEP’s broad base of expertise about renewable energy, Kotzebue’s energy resources, data experts, and programming staff. Helping hands along their journey include:

  • Dylan Palmieri, formerly of ACEP and now of the Alaska Satellite Facility (ASF), who helped them establish a postgres database to store their data
  • Nathan Green, who is becoming an expert in Kotzebue and Cordova’s energy utility data, helped them understand how to get hourly data for the balance of renewables and non-renewables to feed into their data visualizations in the app
  • ACEP’s Technical consultant Will Fisher helped Tuva and Nicole select some data visualization tools and deploy their web application and
  • Lindy Guernsey, currently a mechanical engineering student at UAF, provided more context and subject matter expertise on the data feeds from Kotzebue that the app uses.
  • Last but not least, Dayne Broderson provided the general vision, deployment assistance, and technical direction that Tuva and Nicole work under.

What’s next for Tuva and Nicole?

The programming duo hopes to demo three features for the app at the end of this semester, as part of the successful completion of their Capstone project and senior year at UAA. They will also showcase their work to ACEP, KEA, and the Denali Commission, who are eager to see if this type of app can be useful to community members seeking to better understand the energy choices their utilities are making. They also plan to share their work with Kotzebue community members, and perhaps visit Kotzebue over the summer. And lastly, ACEP’s Data Governance team hopes to continue working with Tuva and Nicole on web-based technology and user-oriented design that supports community energy awareness as their first official programming jobs this summer.