Cadet Intern Uses Math to Eradicate City Energy Hogs

A man points at a computer while a student looks on

Maj. David Cox (seated) and Cadet Chap Michie ’15 study visual models of Lexington energy usage. -- VMI Photo by Mary Price.

Cadet Robert “Chap” Michie ’15 spent his summer pouring over spreadsheets in an internship that was a far cry from his previous summer job as a bag boy at a golf course.

Michie, an applied mathematics major from Richmond, is analyzing the city of Lexington’s energy usage over the past six years, to help City Manager Jon Ellestad identify buildings that are “energy hogs.” By mid-July, he had taken six years’ worth of energy usage data on paper and put that information into spreadsheet form. By the end of the summer, he planned to have a visual model of the energy usage for each of the city’s 27 billable accounts.

“The hope is that [the city of Lexington] can take this information … and make the buildings more efficient,” said Michie.

Michie said he chose the project in part because of his interest in sustainability, which he defined as “the effort to meet the social, economic and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

Michie’s project is one of four this summer under the auspices of a new program called REMACS – Research Experiences in Mathematics and Computer Science. REMACS is the brainchild of Maj. John David, who participated in a similar program while he was conducting post-doctoral research at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “The idea of REMACs is to show the cadets what you can do with applied mathematics,” said David, an assistant professor in VMI’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. “They need to see math in a real-world setting.”

Part of the benefit of taking on a real-world math problem such as that provided by REMACS, said David, is for cadets to have the experience of reporting to a boss.

“You have a client, and the problem isn’t posed like it is in a textbook,” he commented.

Michie’s work is overseen by Maj. Geoff Cox, assistant professor of applied mathematics, and he’s also receiving assistance from Maj. Todd Pegg, energy manager with the VMI physical plant.

Pegg has been working to reduce VMI’s energy consumption ever since his arrival in 2007, and he’s been sharing with Michie the spreadsheets and 3-D modeling tools which have enabled him to track the Institute’s energy usage and identify areas for improvement. Pegg said his use of these tools has helped VMI to reduce its energy usage “substantially” over the past five years, even as the Institute has added new buildings at a rapid rate.

Pegg explained that utilities such as Dominion Virginia Power have a multitude of rate schedules, and having modeling data available on a spreadsheet allows a customer, such as VMI or the city of Lexington, to see how its bill might be affected by a change to a different rate.

Having a digital model available for such simulations “adds a level of micro-management to the city that VMI has, and the city currently lacks,” said Michie.

After graduation from VMI, Michie hopes to go to graduate school in economics or earn an MBA. “My really big goal is to work in the financial field and apply math skills to the world of economics and finance,” he said.

Cox, meanwhile, has enjoyed a chance to step away from the theory of math and plunge into its real-world applications. “A whole bunch of math just comes from the fact that things are proportional,” Cox said. “It’s nice to be able to take a real-life situation and be able to apply math to it.”

- By Mary Price

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