An architectural rendering of the Maplewood Apartments, now under construction, for the entrance on Mitchell Street.

New grad housing is living lab for heat pump study

While a spring scene is depicted here in the architectural rendering of the upcoming, all-electric Maplewood Apartments, Cornell engineering students will study how air-source heat pumps perform during the cold Ithaca winters.

The Maplewood Apartments – graduate student residences under construction between Mitchell Street and Maplewood Avenue by EdR Collegiate Housing – arguably could become the hottest address in the Northeastern United States for helping keep Earth’s climate cool.

In this new all-electric neighborhood with 444 units and 872 beds, Max Zhang, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his team of undergraduate and graduate students will deploy wireless monitors and systems in a living laboratory. Their goal is to obtain performance detail on how air-source heat pumps – which extract heat from outside air to put indoors – perform under Ithaca’s severe winter conditions.

“Deploying heat pumps on this large scale is unprecedented in this climate zone. It’s the largest collection of heat pumps within a single development in the Northeast,” said Zhang, a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

“You commonly see air-source heat pumps in moderate temperature locations, like the middle Atlantic states or in the South,” said doctoral candidate Kevin Kircher, a member of Zhang’s group. “Using heat pumps exclusively in a large neighborhood in the Northeast is novel.”

About 50 million U.S. households – 40 percent of the population – are located in regions that require intensive heating, according to Zhang. For New York state residents, nearly 93 percent of the heating-related energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, usually natural gas.

More than 90 percent of the natural gas consumed for electricity production and heating in Northeastern states is derived from shale. During shale gas production, fugitive methane emissions escape, making the gas a contributor to global warming.

“We're trying to displace the fossil fuel by developing efficient controls for renewable-powered heat pumps,” said Kircher.

In January, the Atkinson Center awarded the Zhang group a $25,000 grant to purchase test equipment to outfit units in the Maplewood complex. Last summer, the National Science Foundation awarded Zhang a $330,000 grant for three years to examine how a strained electric grid could handle new, unforeseen energy demand in the winter.

“I realized there are many challenges in the massive adoption of heat pumps. For example, large-scale implementation of electric-driven heating will likely lead to winter peak demand, analogous to summer peak demand driven by air-conditioned cooling,” said Zhang. “It’s exciting, as we may be at the beginning of electrification of the heating sector.”

Zhang said that the living laboratory part of the project, a cornerstone of Cornell's Campus Sustainability Plan, offers undergraduates the chance to engage with the community and to obtain real-world learning experiences.

As more solar, wind and other renewable electricity sources grow, electric heating systems could serve as a sustainable solution to carbon sources. But electric heating systems will have impact on the power grid. For the NSF grant, Zhang’s team will develop software to optimally control clusters of heat pumps.

The former housing at Maplewood was built in 1989 and was not energy efficient. With newly constructed, highly efficient buildings and other mechanical amenities, the new neighborhood will significantly reduce the 17-acre site’s environmental impact, despite an increase in population.

The new development is owned and being built by EdR Collegiate Housing. Not using natural gas is consistent with the Tompkins County Energy Roadmap, which Zhang helped to develop, and the Tompkins County legislature adopted in 2016.

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Jeff Tyson