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To prepare UT Austin for climate impacts, researchers have created a 'digital twin' of campus

A map of UT Austin's campus is seen with the different buildings marked in different shades of white, tan, orange and red to denote the energy levels in the buildings.
UT Austin
UT Austin's "digital twin" works like a map where researchers can see how buildings are using energy.

Increased extreme weather and growing energy demand are two challenges facing electric grids — and not just big regional ones. Microgrids that are largely self sufficient and serve smaller areas must also prepare for these events.

To better understand those challenges, researchers at UT Austin have created what they call a “digital twin” of the university's grid.

The digital twin is a virtual campus, kind of like a 3D Google map, where you can interact online to see data about energy use at each of the school's buildings.

Zoltan Nagy is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering who helped spearhead the project. He said researchers can input potential weather conditions or energy demand assumptions and see how the campus reacts.

Increasing summer heat — thanks in large part to global warming — is driving higher energy demand. Nagy said that demand will eventually “hit the limit” of what the school’s natural gas power plant can generate.

This reality highlights the need for better energy efficiency on campus, he said.

“That’s definitely in the data,” Nagy said. “It would be great if we had some stronger goals on reducing energy use or avoiding emissions.”

Nagy said one challenge is that many buildings on campus are not sufficiently insulated, needlessly driving up energy use when the weather gets too hot or too cold.

In Texas, there was no energy code to mandate insulation in state-owned buildings until 1989. Statewide codes for Texas residential and commercial buildings didn’t go into effect until 2001.

The absence of insulation in many Texas homes and buildings was on display during the 2021 Texas blackout when home heating stopped working for millions of people, leading to frozen pipes bursting.

Researchers said the “digital twin” approach to energy modeling could also raise awareness of how distributed energy production — like solar panels or the proliferation of electric vehicles — may impact energy grids.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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