The energy economy

24 Nov 2011

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Henry Smyth, head of energy and technology at Bord Gáis. Background: OpenHydro tidal turbine technology that's being deployed to create the world's largest tidal array off the coast of Paimpol-Bréhat, France

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With energy security a pressing global issue, Bord Gáis Energy is one Irish utility that’s diversifying from natural gas in order to embrace renewables.

Energy security has been in the global spotlight of late, with countries striving to keep apace with rising price volatility for oil and gas, as well as meeting CO2 protocols to lower their national emissions.

IRELAND’S ENERGY PORTFOLIO AND THE RENEWABLES FACTOR

2pc: Percentage of primary energy supply in Ireland made up by renewable resources (Oracle Future of Energy Report)

94pc: Amount the production of energy through renewable resources has increased by since 1990 (Oracle Future of Energy Report)

13: Number of wind farms Bord Gáis Energy now owns in Ireland

The European Union’s Low Carbon 2050 Strategy has called for an 80-95pc cut of greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2050.

And with the International Energy Agency’s recent World Energy Outlook predicting primary energy demand increases by one-third between 2010 and 2035, how are nations such as Ireland going to strike a balance between energy demand and cleaner supply?

Just two weeks ago, Oracle Utilities released its Future of Energy report, in which it asserted that the global economy needs a "clean energy revolution".

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in March is one such incident that has forced countries to rethink their energy strategies.

Germany, for example, has pledged to phase out all 22 of its nuclear reactors by 2022, while Switzerland has also taken a similar stance, vowing to close down all of its nuclear plants by 2035.

Ireland and energy

For Ireland, the issue is even more pressing. The island currently relies on imports for more than 90pc of its energy needs. This is despite having some of the best wind, tidal and wave resources in the world.

Mention certain types of renewables and there are many skeptics out there. Take Prince Philip, who earlier this week reportedly denounced wind farms, deeming them "absolutely useless" and "an absolute disgrace".

This comes with the EU Habitats Directive, which came into force recently, so it’s becoming more difficult to get planning for wind farms that are near special areas of conservation.

The reality is utility companies across the globe are being forced to change their energy portfolios to prepare for how renewable forms of energy will have to be integrated into countries’ energy mixes, creating cleaner, smarter grid infrastructures.

Ireland’s Bord Gáis is one such utility that has been diversifying hugely into renewables, rather than just concentrating on natural gas. Bord Gáis Energy (BGE) now owns 13 wind farms in Ireland.

Henry Smyth, head of energy and technology at Bord Gáis, explains that the wind farms have a combined wind capacity of 240 megawatts (MW) in operation at the moment. There is another 500MW in the pipeline, either waiting for grid connection or planning permission.

Challenges prevail, however, such as the North-South Interconnector between Meath and Tyrone, which would have allowed greater take-up of renewable in the region, that EirGrid has been forced to pull back for the moment.

Bord Gáis is also working closely with University College Cork (UCC) on researching renewable gas. The two entities released a report last year (The Future of Renewable Gas in Ireland) on the area.

Looking at the creation of biomethane gas by digesting grass in anaerobic digesters, Smyth says the process is "completely and utterly proven".

"Economically, however, it just doesn’t stack up today, depending on the source material that you use for your anaerobic digester. The big potential in Ireland is grass that’s not being used."

Bord Gáis collaborates with academia

Bord Gáis has collaborated with Dr Jerry Murphy, principal investigator in bioenergy and biofuels in the Environmental Research Institute at UCC. They looked to Germany, where farmers there have set up biomass co-ops together, growing grass and feeding it into anaerobic facilities, operating on a type of profit-share basis.

"The result is biomethane and you put that into the gas grid. You can burn it and it’s fully renewable heat, or if you use it for electricity it’s renewable electricity," says Smyth.

He points to a new EU directive, which has classified biomethane as a fully renewable fuel. "It’s completely carbon neutral."

Bord Gáis also carried out a joint study with UCC’s Murphy to look at the possible creation of 200 anaerobic digesters across Ireland being fed by grass.

"If you consider up to 30 farmers feeding grass into those digesters, that’s 6,000 jobs for farmers and then there’s the spin-off jobs. It’s also security of supply for Ireland because you are reducing the amount of gas you are importing. Ireland has one of the best climates in Europe for growing this grass for renewable energy. The big thing in Ireland now is we don’t have feed-in tariffs for renewable heating.

"If this was supported, Ireland could meet its transport, heating and even electricity targets."

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Wave power

Wave energy is another strong focus for the utility. Just last year, Bord Gáis invested €1.8m in Irish company Wavebob, taking a 1pc share in the company. Wavebob has invented a unique wave energy converter, the ‘Wavebob’. Led by Andrew Parish, Wavebob has been investing heavily in R&D for more than a decade and is now considered one to watch in global wave energy circles.

Irish tidal energy firm OpenHydro has also come under the Bord Gáis radar. In 2010, Bord Gáis Energy became a shareholder in the company, with the duo forming a joint venture to pioneer a utility-scale tidal farm off Ireland’s west coast.

OpenHydro designs and manufactures tidal turbines and has featured heavily in the news of late. Last week, for instance, the company won in the Other Renewables category in the Global Cleantech Cluster Association Awards (GCCA), held in Dublin.

EDF, one of France’s largest utilities, has recently collaborated with OpenHydro, deploying its tidal technology to create the world’s largest tidal farm off the coast of Paimpol-Bréhat, France, set to be operational in 2012.

At the GCCA last week, Maynooth, Co Kildare-based Imperative Energy won in the biofuels category, an example of the scope Irish companies have to take the lead in terms of clean tech.

Smyth also points to the future possibilities for Ireland to become a leader in energy research globally. "The International Energy Research Centre (IERC) is now based in Cork at Tyndall National Institute. Bord Gáis was one of the founding members," he says. Industry members also include Alcatel, IBM, Vodafone and Intel.

Smyth explains the IERC formula: "Industry brings areas of research into the IERC – the issues and potential opportunities that industry is seeing. It’s up to the IERC to manage this research with all of the key institutions – UCD, DCU, UL, NUI Galway and TCD are all involved.

"It’s research that should have a high industrial application and high-potential commercial applications for spin-outs, for all of the companies involved to be able to use themselves in their own businesses and for industry partners to team up and create start-ups that could have export potential."

Research project areas currently being explored at the IERC include the next generation of hot water storage for buildings.

"The big challenge for Ireland is going to be energy efficiency in our buildings, including the retrofitting issue."

Finally, Smyth says Bord Gáis operates in these stages within the renewables area – R&D, demonstration and deployment.

"Within Bord Gáis, what we’re trying to do is position ourselves the whole way around the chain. But you can’t do it on your own. That’s why we’re collaborating with the IERC and through the Marine Energy Research Centre.

"We were involved in demonstration projects around smart meters. Then we’re deploying our wind and home services. So we’re positioning ourselves to try and ensure we are developing what will best fit the needs of customers for retrofitting markets.

"Ireland has a large exposure to international prices for fossil fuel. We’re importing over 90pc of our energy needs. That’s our greatest exposure. We have to develop our renewables sector, even if it’s a long-term plan, to wean us off the international oil markets," Smyth affirms.

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Carmel was a long-time reporter with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com