‘Forget soup on paintings, we need cheaper clean energy’

8 Feb 2024

EpiSensor founder and CEO Brendan Carroll. Image: Ioana Marinca

EpiSensor CEO Brendan Carroll discusses the dramatic changes in the green energy market, predictions for future tech trends and the challenges of starting and leading a business.

In 2007, Brendan Carroll founded EpiSensor, an Irish company that aims to help businesses improve their energy efficiency – an issue that has grown significantly in recent years.

The company was founded during the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) technology and has supported various businesses with their sustainability and energy management efforts. Some of the companies that use EpiSensor technology include Capula, Enel X, ESB, Veolia and CoolPlanet.

While the journey has been successful for Carroll, the EpiSensor CEO warned aspiring founders that the journey will likely be difficult. He described leading and growing a business as like being launched in a rocket towards a planet that you can’t see “with some seeds and soil and tools on board”.

“So, the first task is don’t die along the way and when you have that figured out, you can think about navigating somewhere exciting,” Carroll said. ““The only reason you would put yourself through that is if you loved the thing you were working on, so that’s important too.

“I don’t have very unique insights on this, but apart from that, I would suggest being generous with ideas and be careful of VC money – make sure you understand their business model before taking it.”

The changing market

Carroll said EpiSensor is focused on two main energy issues, which are demand response – a “safety net” to help grid operators add more renewables – and energy management to help people identify where, when and how their energy is being consumed. He claims other systems in the market that provide these services are complex and “basically stuck in the 90s”.

“We’re trying to bring a consumer-class user experience to what is a very mission critical, industrial product range – and we believe that’s really important if the technology is going to reach mass market adoption,” Carroll said. “It needs to be 10 times easier, 10 times lower cost, and 10 times faster to deploy – and that’s what we’ve been building at EpiSensor. Sounds easy, but it’s quite tricky in practice.”

Carroll said the market for renewable energy has shifted dramatically since he founded EpiSensor and noted that we’re only now crossing a threshold where the cost per watt for solar panels has gotten cheap enough for things to get “really interesting”.

“It’s not just solar PV – lithium-ion battery cost has also dropped by roughly an order of magnitude across the same period,” Carroll said. “That’s important because human nature is such that unless we can see a very direct link between our actions and their consequences, we’ll probably choose to kick the can down the road.

“And so with climate change, having a thing that’s clean/renewable be both better and cheaper than the dirty thing, is the only way to tackle it. You could throw soup on every painting in the world and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference – but making clean energy cheaper while making the performance better, now that’s interesting.”

Carroll said one of EpiSensor’s recent accomplishments was connecting EV charging stations to the internet so they can be used by electricity grid operators as “a virtual power plant”. He also noted that balancing the grid has evolved from simply adding more fuel to the fire, particularly with the rise of renewables.

“Reducing demand has exactly the same balancing effect as increasing supply, and that’s where the sensors come in – they can detect imbalance (or be instructed by the grid operator) and reduce or increase demand by controlling energy-consuming equipment,” Carroll said. “And if you have intermittent supply (as you do with renewables) the need for balancing increases.

“So, it’s a really interesting application for sensors and the internet, and a really interesting time to be working on this. We’re seeing very fast growth in that area at the moment.”

Looking to the future

Carroll noted that we’re “living through an unbelievably interesting time” and that part of his job is to predict where certain trends are heading. Carroll believes in the quote commonly attributed to William Gibson – “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – and said you can “look to the pockets of early adopters to predict future trends”.

“In general, I think there will be a rapid and deep integration of AI into our workflows and lives in the coming years,” Carroll said. “There have probably been flashes of AI surpassing human-level intelligence in research labs already.

“I believe that bitcoin will be important for the transition to sustainable energy and as a mechanism to transfer value across time/geography, and that renewable energy and battery storage will replace fossil fuels more rapidly than the most optimistic predictions, and that everything will be electrified at unprecedented speed.

“In a nutshell, what that means is that we’re heading for an era of abundance – no more constraints on food, products, services or energy – but it’s going to be a messy path before we get there.”

With its recent deal with ESB – along with recognition at last year’s Technology Ireland awards – the future looks bright for Carroll’s energy-focused business. He also shared personal plans for the future, such as finding more time to surf so he can teach his child one day.

Carroll also wants to work on an open-source hardware project, as he has always been fascinated by the fact that “someone can take a problem – design some new solution to it – and just make it available to the world”.

“Something I’ve wanted to do for a while is dig into the housing problem,” Carroll said. “Having been on the edge of a few building projects, it seems like a lot of the work involved is completely repeatable. The industry is set up such that every housing project is custom, and because of that, there are horror stories of budgets getting out of control.

“I would like there to be an open-source house design – maybe where you could customise the internal layout a bit – but where almost all of the problems have been solved by a community already.”

Find out how emerging tech trends are transforming tomorrow with our new podcast, Future Human: The Series. Listen now on Spotify, on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic