Sunday, January 29, 2017

Solar analysis of metropolitan areas using Energy3D

Fig. 1: Sunshine at the lower Manhattan island
Energy3D can be used to analyze the solar radiation on houses, buildings, and solar power plants to help engineers design strategies for exploiting useful solar energy or mitigating excessive solar heating. This blog post shows that Energy3D may also be used to analyze the solar radiation in large urban areas (e.g., to study the effect of urban heat islands).

Fig. 2: Solar irradiance heat map of Manhattan on 4/25
To demonstrate this application, I chose a 3D model of a section of the lower Manhattan island as a test. The 3D model was downloaded from SketchUp's 3D Warehouse. It was supposedly created after the lower Manhattan island in 2008. I didn't bother to check for accuracy as this was supposed to be a test of Energy3D. Figure 1 shows the model of the Manhattan area.

Fig. 3: More solar irradiance heat maps.
The model has more than 8,000 meshes of various sizes (a mesh is a polygon area for computational analysis and graphical rendering in Energy3D). The entire area is so big that even a low-resolution daily simulation took more than five hours to complete on my Surface Book computer. Figures 2 and 3 show the rendering of the solar irradiance heat map on top of the 3D model after the computation completes.

Our next step is to figure out how to optimize our simulation engine to speed up the calculations. The latest version of Energy3D already includes some optimizations that allow faster re-rendering of the solar irradiance heat map by re-generating the texture images without re-calculating the solar irradiance distribution.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Importing and analyzing models created by other CAD software in Energy3D: Part 2

Fig.1: The Gherkin (London, UK)
In Part I, I showed that Energy3D can import COLLADA models and perform some analyses. This part shows that Energy3D (Version 6.3.5 or higher) can conduct full-scale solar radiation analysis for imported models. This capability officially makes Energy3D a useful daylight and solar simulation tool for sustainable building design and analysis. Its ability to empower anyone to analyze virtually any 3D structure with an intuitive, easy-to-use interface and speedy simulation engines opens many opportunities to engage high school and college students (or even middle school students) in learning science and engineering through solving authentic, interesting real-world problems.
Fig. 2: Beverly Hills Tower (Qatar)

There is an ocean of 3D models of buildings, bridges, and other structures on the Internet (notably from SketchUp's 3D Warehouse, which provides thousands of free 3D models that can be exported to the COLLADA format). These models can be imported into Energy3D for analyses, which greatly enhances Energy3D's applicability in engineering education and practice.

Fig. 3: Solar analysis of various houses
The images in this post show examples of different types of buildings, including 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) in London, UK (Figure 1) and the Beverly Hills Tower in Qatar (Figure 2). Figure 3 shows the analyses of a number of single-family houses. All the solar potential heat maps were calculated and generated based on the total solar radiation that each unit area on the building surfaces receive during the selected day (June 22).

These examples should give you some ideas about what the current version of Energy3D is already capable of doing in terms of solar energy analysis to support, for example, the design of rooftop solar systems and building solar facades.

In the months to come, I will continue to enhance this analytic capacity to provide even more powerful simulation and visualization tools. Optimization, which will automatically identify the boundary meshes (meshes that are on the building envelope), is currently on the way to increase the simulation speed dramatically.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Importing and analyzing models created by other CAD software in Energy3D: Part 1

Fig. 1: Solarize a COLLADA model in Energy3D
Fig.2: A house imported from SketchUp's 3D Warehouse
Energy3D is a relatively simple CAD tool that specializes in building simulation and solar simulation. Its current support for architectural design is fine, but it has limitations. It is never our intent to reinvent the wheel and come up with yet another CAD tool for architecture design. Our primary interest is in physics modeling, artificial intelligence, and computational design. Many users have asked if we can import models created in other CAD software such as SketchUp and then analyze them in Energy3D.

Fig. 3: A house imported from SketchUp's 3D Warehouse
I started this work yesterday and completed the first step today. Energy3D can now import any COLLADA models (*.dae files) on top of a foundation. The first step was the inclusion of the mesh polygons in the calculation of solar radiation. The polygons should be able to cast shadow on any object existing in an Energy3D model. This means that, if you have a 3D model of a neighboring building to the target building, you can import it into Energy3D so that it can be taken into consideration when you design solar solutions for your target. Once you import a structure, you can always translate and rotate it in any way you want by dragging its foundation, like any existing class of object in Energy3D.

Fig. 4: A house at night in Energy3D
Due to some math difficulties, I haven't figured out how to generate a solar radiation heat map overlaid onto the external surfaces of an imported structure that are exposed to the sun. This is going to be a compute-intensive task, I think. But there is a shortcut -- we can add Energy3D's solar panels to the roof of an imported building (Figure 1). In this way, we only have to calculate for these solar panels and all the analytic capabilities of Energy3D apply to them. And we can get pretty good results pretty quickly.

Fig. 5: A 3D tree imported from SketchUp's 3D Warehouse
Figures 2-4 show more examples of how houses designed with SketchUp look like in Energy3D after they are imported. This interoperability makes it possible for architects to export their work to Energy3D to take advantage of its capabilities of energy performance analysis.

Being able to import any structure into Energy3D also allows us to use more accurate models for landscapes. For instance, we can use a real 3D tree model that has detailed leaves and limbs, instead of a rough approximation (Figure 5). Of course, using a more realistic 3D model of a tree that has tens of thousands of polygons slows down the graphic rendering and simulation analysis. But if you can afford to wait for the simulation to complete, Energy3D will eventually get the results for you.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Why is Israel building the world's tallest solar tower?

Fig. 1: Something tall in Negev desert (Credit: Inhabitat)
The Ashalim solar project (Figure 1) in the Negev desert of Israel will reportedly power 130,000 homes when it is completed in 2018. This large-scale project boasts the world’s tallest solar tower -- at 250 meters (820 feet), it is regarded by many as a symbol of Israel’s ambition in renewable energy.

Solar thermal power and photovoltaic solar power are two main methods of generating electricity from the sun that are somewhat complementary to each other. Solar tower technology is an implementation of solar thermal power that uses thousands of mirrors to focus sunlight on the top of a tower, producing intense heat that vaporizes water to spin a turbine and generate electricity. The physics principle is the same as a solar cooker that you have probably made back in high school.

Why does the Ashalim solar tower have to be so tall?

Surrounding the tower are approximately 50,000 mirrors that all reflect sun beams to the top of the tower. For this many mirrors to "see" the tower, it has to be tall. This is easy to understand with the following metaphor: If you are speaking to a large, packed crowd in a square, you had better stand high so that the whole audience can see you. If there are children in the audience, you want to stand even higher so that they can see you as well. The adults in this analogy represent the upper parts of mirrors whereas the children the lower parts. If the lower parts cannot reflect sunlight to the tower, the efficiency of the mirrors will be halved.

Fig. 2: Visualizing the effect of tower height
An alternative solution for the children in the crowd to see the speaker is to have everyone stay further away from the speaker (assuming that they can hear well) -- this is just simple trigonometry. Larger distances among people, however, mean that the square with a fixed area can accommodate less people. In the case of the solar power tower, this means that the use of the land will not be efficient. And land, even in a desert, is precious in countries like Israel. This is why engineers chose to increase the height of tower and ended up constructing the costly tall tower as a trade-off for expensive land.

Fig. 3: Daily output graphs of towers of different heights
But how tall is tall enough?

Fig. 4: Energy output vs. tower height
This depends on a lot of things such as the mirror size and field layout. The analysis is complicated and reflects the nature of engineering. With our Energy3D software, however, complicated analyses such as this are made so easy that even high school students can do. Not only does Energy3D provide easy-to-use 3D graphical interfaces never seen in the design of concentrated solar power, but it also provides stunning "eye candy" visualizations that clearly spell out the science and engineering principles in design time. To illustrate my points, I set up a solar power tower, copied and pasted to create an array of mirrors, linked the heliostats with the tower, and copied and pasted again to create another tower and another array of mirrors with identical properties. None of these tasks require complicated scripts or things like that; all they take are just some mouse clicks and typing. Then, I made the height of the second tower twice as tall as the first one and run a simulation. A few seconds later, Energy3D showed me a nice visualization (Figure 2). With only a few more mouse clicks, I generated a graph that compares the daily outputs of towers of different heights (Figure 3) and collected a series of data that shows the relationship between the energy output and the tower height (Figure 4). The graph suggests that the gain from raising the tower slows down after certain height. Engineers will have to decide where to stop by considering other factors, such as cost, stability, etc.

Note that, the results of the solar power tower simulations in the current version of Energy3D, unlike their photovoltaic counterparts, can only be taken qualitatively. We are yet to build a heat transfer model that simulates the thermal storage and discharge accurately. This task is scheduled to be completed in the first half of this year. By that time, you will have a reliable prediction software tool for designing concentrated solar power plants.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Designing on lot maps in Energy3D

Energy3D allows users to import an Earth View image from Google Maps and then design 3D structures on top of it. The image provides the reference frame, boundary lines, and other visual aids for getting the geometry right. What if there is no Google Map image, or the Google Map image is outdated, or you simply want to draw on a different substrate other than a Google Map image?

Bob Loy, a teacher at Creekside Middle School in Carmel, Indiana, has such a situation. His school is working with a builder to engage young students to design new constructions in their areas. His goal is for them to design houses that fit on assigned lots planned by the builder and then make them as energy-efficient as possible by applying all sorts of solutions, including insulation, passive solar strategies, and solar panel technologies.

Upon his request, I have added a new feature to Energy3D (V6.2.7) to enable users to import an image from a file to serve as the ground for designing a building, a solar farm, or anything made possible by Energy3D.

Since users can import any image that represents any size in the real world, it is their responsibilities to make sure that the dimension and orientation of the image that appears as the ground in an Energy3D model is accurate. Setting the correct dimension can be done by rescaling the image after it has been imported. There are some other requirements of such images, though. For instance, they have to be a square image (its width and height must be the same) with a reasonably high resolution (otherwise they will appear to be too blurry to look once they are transformed into 3D textures). Users must know the scale of such an image, i.e., the exact length in the real world that a unit length in the image represents. Once the image is inside Energy3D, users should measure its width or height within Energy3D and then rescale the image to make sure that the measurement matches the value in the real world. Currently one can use a foundation object in Energy3D as a ruler, but a real ruler should and will be added in a future version to measure any distance in a more intuitive manner.