Battling energy poverty

5 Jan 2012

Bastian Fischer, vice-president, industry strategy, Oracle Utilities

Energy security is a global issue due to rising gas and electricity costs. Carmel Doyle reports on how energy poverty is hitting Irish homes and how technology can help.

In 2011, energy security came to the front line globally. Rising gas and electricity prices, impacted by factors such as the global economic downturn, volatility in energy markets, the realisation that fossil fuels are infinite, and the Fukishima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan in March following an earthquake and tsunami, have been forcing governments, utility companies, IT firms, vehicle manufacturers, businesses and home owners to rethink their energy strategies.

Just last December, Ireland’s Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte revealed a new strategy that specifically looked at helping people who couldn’t afford gas or electricity, to prevent them from living without heat, especially during cold spells.

The report, Warmer Homes: A Strategy for Affordable Energy in Ireland, was issued as the Government wants to keep people from being left in the cold and the dark because they can’t afford electricity or fuel to heat and light up their homes due to three main reasons: house income, or lack thereof; the price of energy in an unstable global climate; and the energy efficiency of homes.

Many of Ireland’s current dwellings are poorly insulated and need to be retrofitted, especially some homes that were built during the Celtic tiger boom without proper insulation measures being taken.

Better Energy Scheme for Ireland

The Government, via the scheme, has committed to injecting €76m into the re-opening of its Better Energy Scheme for 2012 through its new affordable energy strategy. The fund will be used to help upgrade the energy efficiency of an extra 17,000 low-income homes.

But how has the Government defined energy poverty? In the report, it refers to it as “a situation whereby a household is unable to attain an acceptable level of energy services (including heating, lighting, etc) in the home due to an inability to meet these requirements at an affordable cost”.

Under its preliminary approach, the Government says a household is “considered to be experiencing energy poverty if, in any one year, it spends more than 10pc of its disposable income on energy services in the home”.

So just how many people are in energy poverty in Ireland right now? Based on 2009 statistics, the Government estimates that some 317,000 households experienced energy poverty in 2009, the equivalent to more than one-fifth, or 20.5pc, of all households in the State.

The report also indicates that the marital status of a household’s “chief economic supporter” represents another risk factor for energy poverty.

The Government says, however, that this approach “may underestimate the extent of energy poverty as low-income households can under-heat their homes relative to the level that would be required based on healthy standards”.


Better energy scheme to boost energy efficiency of 17,000 homes

Irish households in energy poverty in 2009 (Irish Government estimate)

The projected increase in global electricity demand by 2050

Since the issuing of the report following the 2012 Budget, Rabbitte indicated that there had been a strong flow of applications for the energy efficiency upgrading of homes.

He said that the Better Energy Scheme had been designed to support the energy efficiency upgrade of 1m homes, businesses and public buildings.


Then you have the vehicle manufacturers such as Ford and Renault, which are all in a race to bring out the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicles.

Believe it or not, electric vehicle technology has been around since the late 1800s. So what’s the reason it hasn’t been pursued until now? The vehicle manufacturers of the time decided to go down the internal combustion route, as it was more efficient.

The films Who Killed the Electric Car and Revenge of the Electric Car reflect the evolution, or to put it more aptly, both the stagnation and the rebirth of the electric car.

The latter documentary features such tech visionaries as Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla motors, as well as Bob Lutz, vice-chairman at General Motors, who has been a recent electric vehicle convert following years of scepticism. Carlos Ghosn, CEO and president of Renault of France and Nissan of Japan, also features in it.

Right now, the Nissan LEAF and the Mitsubishi iMiEV are two of the world’s top-selling electric cars. And the other vehicle giants are racing to keep on top of emerging technologies to make cars cleaner and leaner.

Future of Energy report by Oracle

Oracle, in its Future of Energy report released in October, depicted a worrying energy scenario: the continuing demand for energy as well as “vulnerabilities” in the energy supply chain and volatility in energy markets are some of the factors with social, environmental and economic impacts, not just in Ireland, but worldwide.

According to Oracle, an energy revolution on a par with the electrification rollout in the 20th century is required.

As part of its country snapshot on Ireland, John Mullins, CEO, Bord Gáis, contributed to the Oracle report. Bastian Fischer, vice-president, industry strategy, Oracle Utilities, says that the scale of the energy challenge means that countries need to take action now to secure their energy needs for the future. The world’s energy demand is anticipated to increase by 115pc by 2050.

Describing industry verticals, Fischer says utilities and telecom companies, for instance, need to look at their entire volume chain. As well as this, he says the smart electricity grid will see a convergence between renewables and electric mobility. He notes that to achieve energy efficiency, the IT sector will have to create software and hardware solutions in order to achieve the uptake of renewable energy sources such as wind.

Fischer says that in the restructuring and the reconfiguration of networks this will also require collaboration from consumers and the updating of ageing energy infrastructures.

But Fischer points to how renewable energy, and its consumption, will mean that energy-production centres will change, especially moving towards offshore wind energy and water storage, away from urban-based facilities.

“Production centres will change as energy become planable and scheduled. Demandside, management will require people to react, to contribute and to collaborate. Smart-meter sensors, for instance, will allow network operators to have visibility on higher voltage networks.”

Smart tech at home

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Energy consumers, such as the average householder, argues Fischer, will have to become informers, sending signals to utilities via smart technologies in their homes about their energy demands and shifts in their needs.

For instance with biogas, using the analogy of the successful framework in Germany whereby anaerobic digesters store biogas, Fischer says the consumption of energy and when we consume it is also something that needs to be looked at.

For example, if a household has excess energy, or has an electric car, they could potentially sell excess energy back to the electricity grid. This could come in handy when intermittents like wind are not giving enough energy to supply the grid.

Looking to electric mobility, Fischer says that such electric vehicles could play a role in decarbonising the transport segment, feeding energy back to the network via short or fast batteries.

“Technically that is possible,” he adds.

However, the life cycle of lithium-ion batteries, for instance, is one factor that could potentially impede their efficiency in this life cycle, as their infinite nature would also pay a price for balancing out the grid, he notes.

Oracle itself is involved in an electric mobility project in Portugal called MOBI-E, as part of the ecar charging station rollout. In relation to IT, however, Fischer and Oracle believe that the key for successful energy projects will mean the future proofing of open platforms. And smart meter technology deployment by utilities will be key. That’s where IT will really come to the table.

“It will mean hyperscalable infrastructures,” says Fischer.

He argues the need to aggregate and analyse demand-side management. “You will need regulation on privacy. It’s not a problem of IT. IT will enable access to in-home displays so that all the data will be there so the networks can be run efficiently.”

And Fischer’s concluding words? “Intermittent sources of energy will require collaboration from regions so that the smart grid will be always on 24/7, irrespective of weather patterns. CSPs and utilities will need to communicate, as will the end customer with the utilities.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic