Using Airborne Thermal Imaging to Bring A New Perspective on Building Energy Efficiency

By Jeff Taylor, President and Bilal Karim, Lead GeoWeb Analyst '€” MyHEAT Inc.

Screen Shot 2015 03 30 at 11.43.25 AMClimate change: two words that are inevitable in today'€™s media. Whether humans like it or not, global climate change is rapidly gaining pace in the 21st century due to increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is causing concerns about energy supply reliability, air quality, changes in land cover, and resource availability such as food production.

Canada itself has to be ready for such threats. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Canadian cities are not well prepared for a rising frequency of extreme weather events, such as the 2013 floods in Southern Alberta. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center has shown that Canadians are highly concerned about changes to their environment, as 54% of them believe climate change to be the biggest threat to their nation. This demonstrates that citizens will take action when given appropriate support. The biggest issue to tackle is the approximate 700 million tonnes of GHG emissions that Canadians are adding to the global total, with Alberta the leading contributor. Amazingly, 43% of these GHG emissions in Alberta is caused by home space heating escaping from residences. With the number of single dwelling residences increasing each year, home space heating remains an unexplored domain and represents an excellent opportunity for energy savings, and improvements in home comfort and energy efficiency.

Making houses greener

Energy efficiency simply means using less energy to provide the same level of service. So far, Canada has not been very efficient with its energy. As we move forward, green homes will become more important, as they are healthier, durable, and more comfortable '€” leading to an overall higher quality of life. More importantly, they have a smaller environmental footprint compared to regular homes, which means their total energy consumption is lower, as is the resulting energy bills for the homeowner. Being a green certified home can increase its overall value by as much as $12,000 when compared to a traditional home of the same age and size.

The problem facing the average homeowner, however, is that they don't know how to make their home more energy efficient and comfortable. In a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors, 87% of homeowners noted that heating costs were important or very important to them, regardless of the age of their home. Moreover, with increasing energy costs that could potentially overtake one'€™s mortgage in future, how does a homeowner know if their home is energy efficient? Installing a programmable or smart thermostat is a great first step, but can they do more? How can citizens be engaged with supporting urban energy efficiency, given that the most cited obstacle to improving energy efficiency is a lack of interest from consumers? This is little surprise when one considers what does energy efficiency really look like and where is it located?

To tackle these questions, Dr. Geoffrey J. Hay from the University of Calgary initiated the Heat Energy Assessment Technologies (HEAT) research project. HEAT'€™s technology allows homeowners to visualize the amount and location of waste heat leaving their homes. It uses innovative Geographic Object-Based Image Analysis (GEOBIA) techniques, GIS cadastral data and a Canadian built thermal airborne sensor. This highly detailed and useful information is available online for 37,914 homes in Calgary for free in the form of an interactive web application. Waste heat represents expensive heated air that is leaving a home instead of staying inside and keeping the house warm. It typically escapes through poorly insulated doors, windows, walls, ceilings and electrical fixtures. This is costly to the homeowner, generates more GHG emissions than necessary and is invisible to the human eye.

The solution

To measure waste heat leaving homes in the HEAT project, a special airborne thermal infrared camera is flown late at night (long after the sun has gone down, in order to mitigate microclimatic variability). Images from this camera showing the different temperatures are then analyzed, and coloured HEAT maps are produced for homes, communities, and cities. In addition to HEAT maps, homes are also provided with HEAT scores (a waste heat metric that ranges from 1 to 100), Hot Spots (that visually correspond to heat escaping from specific roof components or doors, windows, walls), and estimated savings information (both financial and environmental).

HEAT'€™s pilot project was based in NW Calgary, and was received with great acclaim across North America '€” even winning an MIT award for best research tackling climate change. Now, it has spun-off into a startup called MyHEAT Inc. We are currently working to scale up to the full city of Calgary, in addition to other North American cities. This should help the many other municipalities across North America that are struggling to achieve their GHG emissions reduction targets. U.S. utilities are investing billions of dollars each year on programs that encourage their customers to be more energy efficient, as a result of Energy Efficiency Resource Standards that are being implemented by state governments.

Building on this, MyHEAT will create an energy efficiency engagement platform that reveals the invisible waste heat escaping from every building in a city. This platform is designed to inform, educate and inspire homeowners to collectively take action to reduce their energy waste and GHG emissions at the home, community, and city level. MyHEAT'€™s proprietary algorithms enable the comparison of waste heat escaping from buildings that may be in different cities, if that data was acquired at a different time. More importantly, the platform provides actionable information to educate homeowners on how to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, save their money and increase their home comfort level. As well, it connects homeowners with product and service providers to help them take action, monitor retrofit efficiency and inform them about government programs to support energy efficiency upgrades.

MyHEAT is passionate about helping to make the world a better place and is on a mission to show the world what urban energy efficiency looks like, where it is located and what homeowners can do about it.