Greentech 10 To Watch In 2010

 

As we enter a new decade, John Reynoldslooks ahead to see who are going to be the big players in Ireland's greentech sector in 2010

SEMI-STATE SECTOR

A new look at traditional values

THE ESB, Bord Gáis and Bord na Mona were perhaps a little bit late to the game, but they will arguably be the most visible drivers of change as they position themselves at the forefront of an Irish green energy revolution.

With plans to become carbon neutral by 2035 at a cost of €22 billion, the ESB will roll out an electric car charging network on our streets in the coming years, a move which came partly as a result of an investment - through its €200 million Novus Modus innovation fund - in leading US cleantech fund Vantage Point Venture Partners, one of the early backers of the Tesla electric sports car and the Better Place charging network.

It has also invested €4 million in tidal energy firm Marine Current Turbines, whose Seagen device is installed in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland, where it is successfully supplying power to the grid and enabling further trials and research.

Meanwhile, the ESB's international division is supporting Maynooth-based wave energy firm Wavebob through the provision of specialist engineering services and technical support to the company. This will be in the areas of design, manufacture, testing, performance validation and grid connection for one of its devices which is due to be installed in Portugal in 2011.

While biomass and wind generation will also help the ESB to reach its carbon neutral status, the elephant in the room is its coal-burning power station at Moneypoint in Co Clare. Responsible for pumping out six million tonnes of CO2 every year, it is Ireland's biggest single source of carbon emissions. Due to be decommissioned by 2025, by that stage it could be replaced by a new facility fitted with carbon capture technology, although green energy advocates would prefer it to be replaced by wave or tidal farms off the west coast, perhaps integrated with offshore wind farms.

Alongside his counterpart Padraig McManus at ESB, Bord Gáis chief executive John Mullins is also leading the charge to transform Ireland's energy landscape. Having recently paid €500 million for the wind farm assets of SWS Wind Energy, Mullins has also established a €10 million fund to support research into emerging energy-related technologies.

Bord na Mona is due to announce a change of its name later this year, sources say, reflecting its increased focus on international markets for its clean air, wastewater treatment, environmental consultancy and waste management solutions. The former peat board also established an innovation centre in the US earlier this year in a bid to boost its export strategy.

Teagasc, a fourth semi-state player, will drive food and agriculture R&D in Ireland, supported by a network of researchers in our leading universities. According to one scenario envisaged by Bord Bia, the relative advantages afforded by our climate and the support of Teagasc could see food and farming take a greater role in increasing employment and economic growth during the next 20 years.


POWERVATION

Finding the right chip for the job


THE CARBON footprint of the entire global IT, electronics and mobile telecoms industry is at least equal to, if not greater than, that of aviation according to industry analysts Gartner.

Therefore any solution, especially a computer chip, that reduces power consumption and related costs and carbon emissions - by up to 30 per cent in University of Limerick spinout Powervation's case - is welcome in the green economy.

One of the world's leading clean technology venture capital funds, New York-based Braemar Energy Ventures invested an undisclosed amount in the firm last November, just several months after several backers including Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of the computer chip manufacturer, injected almost €7 million into the company.

Led by chief executive Antoin Russell and established in 2006, industry researchers predict that Powervation's chip could take up to a 30 per cent share of a multibillion-dollar market by 2013.


OPENHYDRO

Shipping key to success


KEEN TO avoid the long waiting times that wind farm developers experience due to a shortage of the specialist ships required to transport and install the necessary materials and equipment, last year Dublin-based tidal energy firm Openhydro invested €5 million in the world's first specialist barge to install its turbines on the seabed.

The Openhydro Installer, as it is known, was designed, developed and custom-built specifically to transport and install full-scale tidal turbines on the seabed, a factor which arguably gives it the edge over the other leading Irish marine energy company, Maynooth-based Wavebob.

It was the vision of Trinity College business and economics graduate Donal O'Flynn that led to the establishment of Openhydro. With the help of executive chairman Brendan Gilmore, he secured the world rights to Irish-American inventor Herbert Williams' open-centre turbine technology in late 2004.

Chief executive James Ives, Gilmore and their formidable team have plotted a steady course for the company and it has established a manufacturing facility in Co Louth, which would allow it to scale up its operations while delivering important benefits in terms of skills and employment in the Irish economy.

While Ireland's fledgling marine energy industry lagging behind Scotland, it was there that Openhydro completed all its turbine trials and testing, and where it is successfully delivering power onto Britain's national grid. It seems slightly disappointing that despite the testing facility currently being developed off the coast of Co Mayo, they had to look to our Scottish neighbours for the necessary impetus and support.

However, the company continues to attract investment here, having recently initiated a €30 million fundraising round and secured a €2 million R&D grant from Sustainable Energy Ireland.

Although it may be some time before we see any of its turbines in Irish waters, Gilmore and Ives haven't wasted any time in signing agreements to install tidal farms in Canada, France and the Channel Islands and to begin a trial project in Washington State in the US.

The ultimate aim, according to Gilmore, is that at some point power utilities will replace conventional power stations, of say 400 megawatts, with huge tidal energy farms.

Its operations will become much more capital-intensive once it begins to develop larger installations, and this will most likely see the company meet those financial requirements through a stock market flotation. A less likely scenario would see Openhydro raising money at competitive rates through joint ventures with the major utility companies with which it has established relationships, such as France's EDF.

Whatever course the company takes, Gilmore, Ives and their colleagues appear to have an innovative strategic focus that could make it the most successful and brightest beacon of our green economy during the next few years.


IMPERATIVE ENERGY

Bright spark if interest ahead


THE DÁIL and the Departments of Finance and Agriculture have turned to Maynooth-based biomass heating firm Imperative Energy to help them reduce their carbon emissions.

But what really sets the company apart from its competitors - apart from its success in winning financial backing from Rockfield Energy Investments, the boutique arm of €2 billion UK private equity firm Englefield Capital - is its plans to invest €40 million in BioSpark, a next generation bioprocessing, research, innovation and manufacturing centre in Claremorris, Co Mayo.

Jointly developed by Imperative Energy and partner company Sustainable Biopolymers, the BioSpark venture will incorporate the largest wood pellet production facility in Ireland together with a 5MW biomass energy plant.

The development will also incorporate state of the art laboratory facilities for bioprocessing research and innovation and 17 commercial units to house a cluster of related businesses. The centrepiece, however, will be a bioprocessing facility with a 20,000 tonne per annum capacity, which will use next generation technologies and techniques for the conversion of organic material, such as straw and wood biomass, into various high-value products such as ethanol, lactic acid, lignin, methane and hydrogen.

With plans to co-ordinate innovation and new product developments through NUI Galway's energy research centre, Sustainable Biopolymers already has several bio-based products ready for commercialisation.

The BioSpark venture will enable the company to build on its work to replace oil and synthetically produced materials with materials and products of biomass, energy, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and environmentally benign additives in this way.

By specialising in these innovative by-products of forestry and agriculture, it is hoped that BioSpark will provide a valuable knowledge and skills base, from which indigenous exporting companies can be created, generating sustainable high value jobs in the area.

Both Imperative Energy and their partners at Sustainable Polymers believe that the next step of the BioSpark plan is to embark on similar projects in the UK and North America.

NUALIGHT

Lighting up the aisles


LED BY Dr Liam Kelly, a former associate professor of microelectronics at University College Cork who is also something of a serial entrepreneur, Nualight is blazing a trail in the low energy LED lighting sector.

Thanks to a €1 million deal with Tesco and a significant one with Marks & Spencers, the company's innovative refrigeration lighting is helping the retailers cut their related electricity bills by 60 per cent. In the case of Tesco, this translates into savings of €250,000 a year across its 111 Irish stores. Backed by Novus Modus, 4th Level Ventures, Enterprise Ireland and the founders of Superquinn, Nualight has recently established a US office.

Representative of the kinds of electronics which can deliver significant benefits to the bottom line while cutting carbon emissions, the company is now keen to move into new markets for its products outside the retail refrigeration space.

SERVUSNET

Making sense of the winds of change


IT'S A SIGN you're doing something right when telecoms services giant Nokia Siemens Networks selects your company as its only operations software development partner. Until now, many wind farm operators needed an engineer with the necessary time and expertise to make sense of how a wind farm or an individual wind turbine is performing, using either software supplied by wind turbine manufacturers or a package tailored to their needs.

But by applying their operations experience, Servusnet chief executive Des Farren and his team have solved this problem so that operations directors and managers can get an instant realtime picture of how a wind farm or turbine is performing that is far more straightforward and easy to interpret.

Not only does this reduce their operating and reporting costs, but it also helps them to both forecast and maximise their income from a single wind farm or a portfolio of wind installations.

Currently being trialled with an Irish wind farm, Servusnet's software will also provide the same benefits to solar and marine energy installations. With Nokia Siemens keen to profit from these new markets, Servusnet seems well positioned to become a key player in the crucial software that will be needed to run the next generation of energy sources.

COUNTRY CREST

Farming in a sustainable way for the future


AS A GROWER and supplier of organic potatoes and onions and other processed vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, red cabbage, Country Crest isn't necessarily the nation's most obvious clean technology pioneer. But Gabriel and Michael Hoey's 2,000-acre farm in Lusk, North Co Dublin has set itself apart from other food growers by installing a €1.5 million, 800 kilowatt wind turbine to power all its processing and growing operations.

Although not fully organic, the brothers recycle their water, compost green waste, use recyclable packaging, keep food miles to a minimum and keep additives and preservatives to a minimum. They also have a strict integrated crop management system on their farm to avoid the unnecessary use of fertiliser, and encourage growers of potatoes who are contracted by them to do the same.

The latest addition to the company is a €750,000 anaerobic digester coupled with a combined heat and power unit, which generates electricity from methane gas produced by food waste.

A client list that includes Superquinn, Centra, Super Valu and Dunnes Stores helped Country Crest achieve a turnover of €38 million in 2008.

Coupled with an ethos that puts the use of clean energy at the heart of its business, Country Crest is arguably an example of how Irish food and farming businesses can lead the way in the highest and greenest production standards.

NTR

DIVERSE INTERESTS ACROSS THE SEA


HAVING BECOME something of a conglomerate with diverse interests in waste management, recycling and wind energy - as well as broadband, water, wastewater and roads, NTR's most innovative streak is to be found in its biofuel and solar power businesses.

With a history that stretches back to 1978, when it built and operated the country's first toll road, this area of the business arguably remains its most visible in Ireland. It is also a considerable moneyspinner, given that it is scheduled to receive a further €500 million in payments from the state as a result of a compensation clause related to the sale of the West Link toll road, on top of €100 million it has received so far.

The company had less success with an early biofuel venture in Germany and in 2008 the company made a complicated move that involved buying out Virgin tycoon Richard Branson's stake in their joint venture company Virgin Bioverda and merging this company with its US firm Green Plains Renewable Energy (GPRE). A processor of corn, wheat and sorghum grasses, GPRE markets about 800 million gallons of ethanol biofuel every year, making it the fourth largest such producer in north America.

In the face of concerns about ethanol biofuels, NTR recently invested in a pilot project to grow and harvest algae. What makes NTR's algae project unique is that its joint venture partner BioProcessAlgae's grower-harvester technology takes waste CO2, warm water and heat from one of GPRE's ethanol production plants in Iowa and injects it in a photobioreactor in a bid to stimulate algae growth.

The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the US according to NTR, and it will be early next year before its researchers have compiled enough data to determine whether it can be further developed with a view to commercialisation.

In the field of solar energy, the Dublin-based company should see the first commercial-scale facility, in Phoenix, Arizona, completed early this year that uses Suncatcher concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) technology. Each Suncatcher dish uses the sun's heat to heat and pressurise gas, which in turn powers a Stirling engine that is attached to it.

These devices are the most efficient form of solar power in terms of grid quality electricity conversion, with a rate of 31.25 per cent. They are also highly competitive, offering low cost solar power compared to other solar technology. They also require phenomenally low water usage compared to other solar power technologies.

While embarking on these ventures in the US, it will be interesting to see whether NTR can apply this innovative spirit to its waste management, recycling, wind and water businesses here in Ireland in a way that helps to further stimulate our green business sector.

LIBERATOR AERO

Ahead for heights


SET UP by two former Aer Lingus managers, Kevin Pryor and Tony McDermott, Liberator Aero's software is used by airlines such as Etihad, BlueOne and Bangkok Airways and Scandinavia's SAS to manage fuel consumption and cut fuel burn and related CO2 emissions by up to 2 per cent.

Dublin-based, backed by Enterprise Ireland, and with a six-year track record, Liberator Aero is further proof, were it needed, of the role that software has to play in the green economy and of the benefits innovative applications can deliver in terms of carbon and cash savings.

Further recognition of this fact was made last month when the company signed a five-year agreement with Sita, the leading specialist in air transport communication and IT solutions.

Of particular interest to Sita, which has 90 per cent of companies in the global air transport industry as its clients, is Liberator Aero's award winning fuel saving software, which will be integrated into their own operations suite and sold as a package.

GAELECTRIC

Local geology key to success in energy storage

THE ABILITY to store wind energy is something of a holy grail of clean energy and it is this factor which singles out Gaelectric from the numerous other Irish wind farm operators, because the Dublin headquartered company has proposed to build a pioneering wind energy storage project in Larne, Co Antrim, whose unique geology makes it suitable for storing wind energy using a technology known as compressed air energy storage (Caes).

Apart from pumped hydro storage, which involves using wind energy to pump water to a reservoir from where it is released to power hydroelectric turbines when the wind power is demanded by the grid, Caes is so far the only wind power storage method to have been developed to any significant scale. It operates by storing compressed air when the wind is blowing, which sometimes occurs during off-peak demand periods and releasing it, which turns a turbine to produce electricity, during times of peak demand.

The technology already exists - albeit as a power reservoir for coal and nuclear plants - in Germany and the US, where there are about 400 underground gas storage plants in existence. Gaelectric chief executive Brendan McGrath sees no reason why it can't be used in combination with wind energy.

According to the company, the ability of Caes to smooth the intermittent nature of wind can help reduce emissions across the power system by reducing the reliance on thermal plants. As such, the deployment and operation of energy storage in salt deposits is well established and is extremely safe.

Caes depends on the right geology and in Larne there are salt deposits lying in underground caverns, which would house the necessary storage vessels that are key to it's proposed €220 million project.

Having raised €25 million from private investors in 2008, McGrath is currently eyeing opportunities to establish joint ventures in central Europe, while also proceeding with a $1 billion, 500 megawatt wind farm in the Canadian state of Montana and investigating further Caes opportunities in the US.