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The shape of things to come

Innovation will play a vital role in Ireland’s transition to a low carbon society

No single technology will provide the solution to Ireland’s future energy needs. Nor will any existing technology or combination of them. Energy sources like solar, offshore wind, ocean and many others require much more work and development if they are to play their part.

"ESB has always been innovative and we have made innovation a much more structured part of our business, with the creation of a dedicated innovation division," says ESB executive director of innovation Paul Mulvaney. "We are collaborating with start-ups, business partners and universities to accelerate the pace of change, share ideas and build a more sustainable future. ESB is focused on identifying and delivering smarter energy solutions for our customers, operations and our staff. We leverage expertise from across the company and with our partner organisations."

One channel for the delivery of these solutions is ESB Smart Energy Services which was established in 2016 specifically to work with large energy users in Ireland and the UK to identify and implement efficient, cleaner and more affordable energy solutions. "New technologies are emerging that have the power to transform how businesses consume and manage energy," Mulvaney explains. "We use data analytics capabilities, demand response management platforms and leveraging cutting-edge technology and finance, to reduce energy consumption and costs for industrial and commercial customers. During its first year of operations, Smart Energy Services partnered with more than 50 Irish and UK companies and aims to achieve €50 million in savings with partner companies by 2018."

KPMG partner Mike Hayes is very encouraged by the level of innovation around energy technologies he sees happening in Ireland. "Some incredible things are happening," he says. "People here are looking at developing new technologies around the circular economy concept. There is some very interesting stuff going on in the waste sector, for example."

Among the companies he mentions in this area is Alchemy Utilities which has developed a thermophilic digester system to generate methane gas from agricultural and food waste. "The Alchemy TD system uses thermophilic digestion, which uses no added water and operates at temperatures of around 55 degrees Celsius to create methane gas from waste," says Alchemy chief executive Richard Griffin. "The gas can either be sold back to the grid or used to fuel heat and power generation on site. One advantage is that it is 75 per cent smaller than many standard anaerobic digester units."

Another Irish company in the same area is Limerick based BHSL which has developed highly efficient anaerobic digester systems to create methane from farmyard manures and slurries.

Hayes cites a number of other Irish innovators including Airsynergy, which is developing highly efficient small-sized wind turbines; Gaelectric, which is working with Tesla on storage technologies; and OpenHydro, which is an acknowledged world leader in ocean energy.

Innovation is not limited to technology, Hayes points out. “There is an initiative to make Ireland a global centre of excellence for green finance,” he notes. “Sustainable Nation is doing wonderful work on that.”

There are also market changes afoot. At present, renewables companies sell to utilities and they take the market risk. However, green power generators are looking more and more at taking the risk themselves and entering into power purchase agreements (PPAs) with commercial customers. “That is going to be an emerging market trend in Ireland,” says Hayes.

Innovative Irish companies are winning more than their fair share of grants under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme, according to Enterprise Ireland's Paul Cheasty, who is Ireland's national contact point for the programme. "Horizon 2020 covers energy as well. The focus is on secure and clean energy, as the Commission is moving away from fossil fuel. The European directives are targeting more renewables and increased efficiency. In the last EU seventh framework research programme, Irish companies only got about €20 million from the energy budget. Already, just half way through Horizon 2020, they have doubled that."

Irish companies have particular strengths in a number of areas, he adds. “Ocean energy, for example. We have very good research groups in that area and companies like OpenHydro and DP Energy in Cork. The Marei research centre in UCC is very highly regarded internationally in that space.”

Horizon 2020 funding is not the sole province of large companies or research centres, Cheasty explains. “Quite a lot of small SMEs are involved in areas like smart meters, grid monitoring, smart cities and so on. SMEs get 20 per cent of Horizon 2020 funding under the SME instrument, which allows them get funding without the need for partners. SMEs can bring their own ideas and a lot of them are looking at the energy area.”

SEAI chief executive Jim Gannon says there are areas of energy technology where Ireland leads and can continue to lead. "We have developed chip manufacturing skills and knowledge and this can be used in the development of solar photo voltaic (PV) systems," he says. "They might be manufactured elsewhere but the intellectual property will be here. We now have people here in Ireland working on cutting edge software for where the smart grid meets the market. A lot of our R&D portfolio at SEAI focuses on the smart grid in its various forms. The smart grid offers flexibility, it matches generation with demand in a very sophisticated way and it offers consumers a more proactive role. If the grid asks a consumer to store electricity during a time of high wind, it has to offer them value for that, and it also has to offer them value when it asks for it back. All of those issues have to be worked out."

ESB is also proactive in fostering innovation in the start-up space, according to Mulvaney. “X Site is our off-site innovation hub where radical and potentially disruptive ideas are being developed into proven business concepts. Project teams at X Site embrace the innovative culture and ecosystem at Dogpatch Labs, a leading technology hub in Dublin with a diverse mix of other start-ups. In addition, ESB is a founding partner of the Free Electrons Programme. This is the world’s first clean-tech energy start-up accelerator programme which connects promising start-ups with globally recognised utilities and investors.”