A new €16 million strategic research partnership aimed at supporting the decarbonisation of the energy sector was launched in May. “NexSys (Next Generation Energy System) will help Ireland prepare to meet its carbon emissions reduction targets,” says iri (SFI) director of industry programmes Siobhan Roche.
“SFI has awarded €8 million funding to NexSys and this has been matched by industry partners as well as a philanthropic donation by David O’Reilly, chair of UCD’s Energy Advisory Board.”
Roche notes that this is the largest single philanthropic donation ever made to an SFI-backed project and is the second donation made by David O’Reilly.
Led by the UCD Energy Institute and supported by eight other research organisations and nine industry partners, NexSys, aims to answer some of the fundamental questions for science and society presented by the transition to net zero.
“NexSys is about the future, the future of our energy system and how we get to net zero carbon and also about developing our island’s talent to shape our future energy system,” says Prof Andrew Keane, director of NexSys and the UCD Energy Institute.
'The partnership will have potentially transformative socio-economic impacts and will further enhance the global reputation of Irish research in the energy sector'
“Solutions are front and centre of what we are developing. We are uniquely placed with our industry partnerships to develop cutting-edge technologies alongside developing engagement and dialogue with society on the energy transition. The partnership will have potentially transformative socio-economic impacts and will further enhance the global reputation of Irish research in the energy sector.”
The five-year project is not merely addressing the technical aspects of energy production and demand. “The energy system encompasses technical, financial, and societal dimensions and this is core to the integrated and interdisciplinary research of NexSys,” Roche points out.
“The overarching objective of the partnership is to undertake cross-disciplinary research into the energy system to support its transition to net zero emissions by 2050 while providing a secure supply for all citizens. It will look at the economic models and consumer behaviours required to achieve that along with technical aspects of the energy system itself.”
NexSys researchers will include economists, data analysts, meteorologists, financial analysts and social scientists. “They are all really relevant to the energy transition,” says Keane. “We have to bring consumers and society along with us on the journey.”
He explains that next-generation energy systems include decarbonised energy systems and electricity grids that can support 100 per cent electricity from renewable sources, among other things. “It also means looking at the gas grid in an integrated manner with the electricity grid and how the two can work together,” he adds.
“We will look at technologies like green hydrogen and how it can be used on the gas network to decarbonise it. We will have thermal gas power on the system up until 2030 and beyond and we need to understand how the two grids interact. We will also look at transport, heating, and electricity. You need to consider all sectors simultaneously and the interactions between them.”
Storage technologies will be an area of focus. “We will look at storage on the grid. The wind doesn’t blow all the time and we are looking at long-duration storage technologies as well as how to interconnect the Irish system further into UK and European grids.”
'How would you design a system that could transport power from offshore windfarms to Britain and beyond?'
Those interconnections will provide valuable back-up sources of electricity supply, but Ireland can play a similar role for other countries as well. “We need to harness our offshore wind resource and look at the export opportunities that presents. How would you design a system that could transport power from offshore windfarms to Britain and beyond?”
Domestic consumers also have a role to play. This could see EV owners supplying energy back to the grid from their car batteries during high demand or even using the battery to meet their domestic electricity needs in order to reduce their own demand during peak periods. That increased demand flexibility will assist with accommodating additional renewables on the grid but will require the development of new technologies.
'We need social scientists and economists and others in the room to co-design solutions'
“Our philosophy is that the technical design of all this will not get in the way of the consumer,” says Keane. “Everything will happen in the background. The smart meter or whatever technology is in use will look after it all. As long as the vehicle is fully charged in the morning, the consumer won’t be concerned. That’s a good example of where our multi-disciplinary approach comes in. We need social scientists and economists and others in the room to co-design solutions like that.”
The other key aspect of the project is the knowledge creation and capability building. “We will be training a large number of PhDs,” he concludes. “A big part of what we are doing is providing a pipeline of talent and knowledge for Ireland in this critically important area.”