How to innovate for a sustainable future
In the first in a series of profiles on this year’s Irish Times Innovation awards, we look at the finalists in the sustainability category
Duncan O’Toole, and Dr Paddy Finn, Co-founders of Electricity Exchange.
Electricity Exchange: keeping the grid in balance
The electricity grid is a very finely balanced and surprisingly delicate piece of infrastructure. It is designed to operate at a frequency of 50hz and any significant deviation from that can cause power outages and, in the most severe cases, a complete shutdown.
It has also been designed to carry power from traditional fossil fuel and hydroelectric plants. Power from renewable sources such as wind and solar has significantly different characteristics and doesn’t mix well with the traditional form. This makes it difficult for grid operators to keep systems in balance and the more renewables in use, the harder it gets.
For that reason, organisations such as Eirgrid have established schemes to deliver increased security to the grid. In Eirgrid’s case, the DS3 Systems Services Payments scheme rewards partners for either providing initial power to the network or reducing demand when required by the network.
Irish firm, Electricity Exchange, has developed IoTAS, a device which combines hardware and software to detect and respond to frequency deviations on the national grid in less than 150 milliseconds.
“We address the problem from the demand side,” explains Electricity Exchange managing director Dr Paddy Finn. “IoTAS can detect a frequency drop so quickly that it can get a cement factory to switch off in 100th the time it takes to blink your eye. The Tesla battery facility in Australia is doing much the same thing except that it is storing electricity in reserve to put back into the system when the frequency drops.
“We provide 14mw of fast frequency response to Eirgrid,” he adds. “That’s enough power for 16,000 homes. If you did that with a battery system, it would cost about €3.5 million. With IoTAS the capital cost is just €30,000. Because we provide fast services to Eirgrid, they know they are safe to run the system with higher levels of renewables. It’s like buying a house without an alarm, you won’t put valuables into it until one is installed.”
Electricity Exchange works with partner organisations who are significant users of electricity. They agree to switch off demand for short periods when required and receive an annual fee from Eirgrid for doing so. “A cement factory might shut down for between 90 seconds and five minutes,” Finn points out. “They have agreed timeframes with Eirgrid and they get paid for the amount of energy demand they are willing to shut off. That could be worth a few hundred thousand euro a year to the cement factory.”
The initial idea for IoTAS dates back to 2014 when the company set up a virtual power station which is effectively the reverse process. Instead of delivering demand drops, the virtual station delivers additional power to the grid from a range of partner organisations with their own generating plants.
“We have a 24-hour operations centre here and when extra power is needed to balance the network, instead of turning on gas in existing plants to generate it, we use existing customers on grid to provide the response needed”, says Finn. “Five years ago, we identified the need Eirgrid would have for a fast frequency response as a result of the growth in renewables on the network. We developed our own hardware and software solution because we couldn’t find technology out there that worked fast enough at the right price point.”
Having succeeded in Ireland, the company is now expanding internationally. “Our aim is to be in three countries within the next 18 months and in 12 in five years. We will shortly meet with a number of partners in the Middle East and Australia to kick off that expansion.”
The company is also developing a household version of the technology. “We are working on a new version of IoTAS that will fit on the head of a pin and can be incorporated in electric car chargers,” says Finn. “It will also be able to monitor the amount of solar power being produced at any one time to help Eirgrid better control the grid. There is a certain threshold to the amount of domestic solar that can be taken on the grid and IoTAS will help Eirgrid ensure it remains within that.”
The company has 35 employees with 12 in R&D. “We are profitable and growing,” Finn concludes. “We started out with a virtual generating station and found we were good at technology development. We have now almost morphed into a technology company that provides services to the power industry.”
GlasPort Bio: making brass from muck
The value of manure as a fertiliser and a fuel source for anaerobic digestion (AD) renewable energy generating plants is widely known. What is not so well understand is that this value diminishes over time. During storage, the manure decomposes as a result of microbial activity with poor outcomes for the environment.
“As soon as the manure is produced, the microbes go to work and eat up the nitrogen and carbon producing ammonia and methane and other gases as byproducts,” explains Dr Ruairí Friel, chief executive of Galway-based company GlasPort Bio. “This is bad for the environment and the manure has a lower fertiliser value and produces less bioenergy.”
The company has developed a new product, GasAbate N+, which slows down the decomposition of the manure allowing it to retain more nutrients thereby increasing its value as a fertiliser and as a feedstock for AD electricity-generating plants.
The idea came about through the backgrounds of the three company founders. Friel is a microbiologist as is chief scientific officer Professor Vincent O’Flaherty, while chief commercial officer Killian O’Briain owns an animal feed business and comes from a strong agricultural background.
“It’s a project we’ve been working on for a number of years,” says Friel. “We have an interest in ways of inhibiting microbial processes and one of the things we looked at was the big problem faced by agriculture in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”
The GasAbate N+ product has been 10 years in development. “We developed it until we were quite sure the science was robust and that it would do what we said it would,” he says. “It’s one thing dealing with a few millimetres in the lab and quite another to treat tens of thousands of litres of slurry on a large farm. We had to make sure it would work for that. Once we had tested it to our satisfaction, we launched the company in early 2018.”
The product can be delivered in different forms, as a powder, a liquid or in capsules. The capsule form incorporates two powders blended together. The chemicals used are well known and have been proven to be safe to use, Friel points out.
“The user can drop a few capsules into the slurry tank every two to three weeks,” he adds. “It’s very simple from the user perspective.”
The company employs five people currently and plans to take on a further five or six next year.
“We are manufacturing the product at a small scale in-house at present,” Friel continues. “We are going through a lot of beta testing at the moment and we are working on that with partner farms and AD plant operators. We are going through final product modifications at present and will launch the commercial product in the early part of next year. We are currently in a seed round to raise €4 million and we are hoping to close that by the end of the first quarter of 2020.”
While Ireland has clear issues with agricultural GHG production, the product has clear global potential. “Manure accounts for 1.5 per cent of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, for example,” he points out. “We will initially focus on Europe as it is at the forefront of climate change action and has placed a particular priority on agriculture. Europe also has a strong AD generating sector. After that we will expand into the US and then the Oceanic, Australian and New Zealand markets. We hope to be in profit by 2022 or 2023 after scaling up and gaining a foothold in new markets up until then.”
Innovation will also continue at the company. “We have a good pipeline of new products. The current product is designed for dairy and beef cattle, but manure differs depending on the animal involved and we are developing products for swine and poultry wastes. We can address decomposition in a lot of organic materials. The domestic brown waste bin is an example and we are developing a product for householders to use.”
The future looks bright for GlasPort Bio. “It’s a very opportune time for the business to grow with the increased focus on climate change internationally,” Friel concludes. “There is also a big consumer push for companies to make their products greener. And this is coupled with the fact that end users can actually make a profit from using the product.”
Vita: addressing climate change by doing good in Africa
Irish-based international non-governmental organisation Vita has created a novel investment fund which delivers a return to investors through the generation of valuable carbon credits at the same time as helping people in Africa gain access to clean water and more energy efficient cooking appliances.
The key to all of this is the energy saved which translates directly into fewer trees being cut down, according to Vita chief executive John Weakliam. “Our innovation is to be the first Irish organisation to generate carbon credits by working with people in Africa,” he says. “If a woman in Africa has a more efficient stove, they will cut down fewer trees to fuel it. If they have access to clean water, they don’t have to boil it before drinking it. Planting trees is the third strand of the process. It’s about energy efficiency, water and planting. This generates carbon credits which can be sold, and the income used to repay investors.”
The first Vita Green Impact Fund has been running for three years. “We started with a €2 million pilot programme,” Weakliam explains. “We raised the money from blue chip investors with backing from Cantor Fitzgerald and a grant from the Irish government. We rolled out the project to 300,000 people in rural Ethiopia and Eritrea and we measured the carbon savings through Gold Standard, an internationally recognised organisation based in Switzerland. ”
The carbon credits are sold on the voluntary market which enables companies and organisations with a commitment to reducing their carbon footprint to do so by purchasing carbon credits from socially responsible projects that have achieved actual results in emission reduction. This is fundamentally different to the compliance market which is primarily used to trade credits earned through emissions reductions achieved by commercial organisations.
The initial idea for the Vita Green Impact Fund came about through Weakliam’s own experiences of Africa. “I had been working there for 14 years and I realised that Africa had one thing that the West didn’t have,” he says. “It didn’t go through a fossil fuel era or the industrial revolution and was already quite a low carbon society as a consequence. I thought if we could generate energy savings it would be an effective reduction in carbon because it would prevent tree felling. I originally thought it up in 2008 but the global financial crash created turmoil in the carbon credit market and that delayed it.”
The fund has a dual purpose, he adds. “Hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to clean water or an adequate supply of energy while cutting down trees in bad for the planet. We are doing something to address these issues. Ireland committed to doing something both domestically and internationally on climate action and we are offering the country the means to do something internationally. This is an opportunity for Irish companies, the government and ordinary people to do something to reduce their carbon footprints.”
The pilot fund creates 540,000 tonnes in carbon credits annually. “That will be able to generate €1.5 million in annual income over a 10-year period,” says Weakliam. “Investors get repaid with 10 per cent interest. Once they have been repaid after three years, all surplus income can go back into further development.”
The financial model for the pilot saw €1.5 million raised from investors and a further €500,000 from a government grant. Investors receive €1.65 million from carbon credit sales over three years while any surpluses to towards the ongoing overheads of providing stoves, clean water and so on to communities with the remainder going back into further development.
“Later this year we will launch a €20 million Carbon Impact Fund which is based on the successful pilot. Cantor Fitzgerald is on board again as the lead investor and we are very pleased about that.”
Vita now employs eight people in Ireland and a further 80 local staff in Ethiopia and Eritrea. “This innovation will allow Ireland to take a leadership position in this area. It’s the first fund of its kind in the world and the potential to scale this up further is very high. Demand in Africa for what we are doing is huge and demand for carbon savings in western world is huge as well. We are shining a light on the innovation so that others can follow.”