Research & Innovation

Professor Philip Odonkor Making CAREER of Smart Energy Systems

It's a bustling summer day in the city, and one building is abuzz with activity – music playing, people coming and going, air conditioners working overtime to keep everyone cool. Next door, an apartment building sits mostly vacant, its young residents away on vacation. Yet atop its roof, a network of solar panels quietly generates an abundance of clean energy – energy that is currently going largely unused. Suddenly, a power outage disrupts the lively activities in the first building. What if, at that moment, the two buildings could talk and forge an alliance? What if they could digitally "handshake" and agree to share the apartment building's excess solar energy, rather than letting it go to waste?

This scenario intrigues Stevens professor Philip Odonkor, Ph.D., and it's the focus of his recent CAREER Award. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the National Science Foundation's most prestigious awards in support of early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Odonkor's ambitious project, titled "Evaluating Cooperative Intelligence in Connected Communities," sets out to explore a future where groups of buildings can autonomously cooperate to share energy resources such as solar panels, batteries and generators. Over the next five years, Odonkor will harness the power of multi-agent simulations and real-world experiments to uncover how cooperation can emerge, persist and lead to collective benefits – from energy savings to enhanced climate adaptation and community resilience.

"Imagine buildings, like those on the Stevens campus, forming an energy alliance," Odonkor said. "Instead of operating independently, they could work together to optimize their energy use. The key isn't competition for resources, it's collaboration. By learning to share and coordinate, these buildings can make smarter decisions about their combined energy needs, leading to a more efficient and sustainable system."

Odonkor's research will simulate a wide range of energy cooperation scenarios, modeling diverse building types – from hospitals to coffee shops – and clustering them together to emulate neighborhoods, city blocks or even college campuses. By assigning different preferences and strategic behaviors to the individual buildings, the team can explore the tradeoffs and outcomes when buildings prioritize their own needs versus the greater good of the entire network.

"Do the buildings function better when they prioritize their individual energy needs, or when they factor in the energy security of the entire system? Can buildings learn to use deception to freeload energy from others, and how can such behaviors be discouraged? " Odonkor posited. "This work allows us to gain insights into how energy cooperation can emerge and be sustained across complex, interconnected building systems."

A graphic displaying an outline for professor Philip Odonkor's CAREER Award reseach project about smart energy systems.An outline of the process involved with Philip Odonkor's CAREER Award research project with smart energy systems.

Beyond the technical breakthroughs, Odonkor sees a socially conscious application for this research. He envisions leveraging the principles of cooperative building energy systems to support clean energy transitions in underserved, low-income neighborhoods. In these areas, not every building may have the means to generate and store clean energy independently. By validating energy-sharing strategies, Odonkor's work could provide a blueprint for developing more equitable, resilient urban energy systems.

"Imagine a scenario in which self-sufficient buildings step up to share their excess energy resources during a power outage," Odonkor explains. "It's about buildings working together to support the whole community, rather than prioritizing their own needs above all else."

To bring this vision to life, Odonkor will enlist the help of both graduate students and pre-college students. The graduate students will utilize the resulting testbed to explore their own projects, envisioning the cities of tomorrow and examining how cooperative behaviors could yield benefits beyond just energy management. Meanwhile, pre-college students will work with a gamified version of the final testbed, allowing them to creatively re-envision the city of Hoboken, N.J., as a connected, cooperative urban ecosystem.

Odonkor's interest in smart energy systems has an intriguing origin: drones.

"As an undergrad, I was very fascinated by drone technology," he recalled. "However, one project came up that involved optimizing energy use in a building, and I realized I could apply similar techniques I used for drone development to this new scenario."

This unorthodox journey from drones to energy systems highlights the unexpected sources of inspiration that can drive innovation.

Odonkor's journey to the CAREER Award was not without its challenges.

"My first CAREER proposal was unsuccessful," said Odonkor. "The feedback I received was to rein it in a bit. I was pushing the boundaries too far in my initial plan." So, Odonkor pivoted, deciding to focus his efforts on working directly with students rather than municipalities as originally proposed. "At Stevens, I can readily tap into our excellent cohort of graduate and pre-college students to be part of this research," he said. “This student-centric model allows me to engage diverse perspectives and unlock fresh insights into the potential for cooperative building energy systems."

With the support of the CAREER Award, Odonkor and his team are poised to unveil a blueprint for a future where buildings work together, rather than in isolation. By modeling and validating cooperative energy-sharing strategies, this research could inspire a new generation of leaders to rethink the role of the built environment in creating sustainable, connected communities.

If you would like to hear more from Odonkor, he is presenting as part of the CEOE Seminar Series at noon on April 10. The seminar, titled “Applying Urban Science to Create Smart, Sustainable and Equitable Cities” is open to Stevens students, staff and faculty in Room 301 of the ABS Engineering Center.