From ‘burning dead dinosaurs’ to a decarbonised future

28 Feb 2019

From left: Joe Reynolds, Jenny Livingstone, Joe Devlin, Christine Boyle, Dr Patrick Keatley and host Emer Maguire. Image: TechWatch

TechWatch editor Emily McDaid reports on the latest Fourth Industrial Challenge event, and the theme of the night was renewable energy.

Recently, leaders in renewable energy met at the Catalyst Belfast Fintech Hub to discuss the three Ds: decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitisation.

“The old energy market was a one-way street, where a centralised, coal- or gas-fired power plant sent electricity via high-voltage power lines into your house,” said the first speaker, Joe Devlin of Viridian and Elastic Energy.

That market was easy to understand, he noted. “Then we realised that burning dead dinosaurs isn’t the best for the environment. Let’s build some renewable energy sources to reduce the negative impact of our emissions.”

Devlin said: “Up to 65pc of our demand can be met with renewable sources. Now, we want to profit even more from renewables, allowing people to adopt sources right in their houses.”

Of consumers, Devlin said: “We are now able to be our own mini power plant.”

We need to address the problem of wasting energy in a centralised system, Devlin said, instead of consuming it at source.

“Consumers are now at the heart of the new system. We can deliver a low-carbon future for all.”

The second speaker was Christine Boyle, well known for her company Senergy, which sells smart solar roofing panels. She echoed the opinion that energy creation needs to be decentralised and brought into consumers’ homes.

Boyle set the stage of our historic energy consumption:

  • 5,000 years ago we killed whales for oil
  • About 200 years ago we invented kerosene
  • 150 years ago the race was on for fossil fuels, and we’re already running out

“The ruination of the environment matches exactly the increase in fossil fuel use,” she said.

“Not only are CO2 emissions burning the planet, there’s a huge problem with rising fuel poverty because as resources become more scarce, they become more expensive.”

Boyle said that we should move to an energy system where energy is created locally and shared locally, so that we’re not totally reliant on the large power station. She pointed out that home heating systems are largely fuel-based and don’t rely on electricity. “68pc of NI homes use oil for heat,” she said.

She described how she worked with Queen’s University Belfast to design her solar roofing materials, described in this previous article.

She concluded: “My question is whether a little nation like NI can contribute to the global energy solution.”

The next speaker was Dr Patrick Keatley of Ulster University. He discussed what a transition to low-carbon energy systems would look like.

“We need flexibility for consumers. We also need some kind of storage platform for the integration of renewables.”

Keatley outlined the system we are moving away from. “Policy dictated what happened in the centralised system. Change was slow and managed, easily controlled; it was paramount to have capacity and services to keep the system balanced to deliver energy at all times.”

He went on: “Now, we’re moving to small-scale renewable deliverables; you now have a lot of different technologies. It’s about flexibility and optimisation of the capacity that you already have, minimising infrastructure that you have to build.”

Keatley described how the energy market has peaks and troughs, and higher rates apply for electricity at peak times. “The peak usage time is at 6pm and the system is managed to meet that peak usage – but there are a lot of times when the system is sitting idle,” he noted.

Where can system value be created? “The energy transition we’re going through at the minute is not about renewables, it’s about data and information,” he said.

“Few things scare a politician more than thinking that the lights might go out.

“For electrification of transport and heat, there will be a need for large-scale generation. Policy and regulation will have to adapt.”

The final speaker was Jenny Livingstone from Power NI. She made the point that no one should discount the government’s role to transform the energy markets. “Don’t forget, there are useful policy instruments coming out of government to decarbonise.”

She explained: “If we buy a new home, it’s so much more efficient than it would have been even 10 years ago, largely driven by building regulations. The change from lightbulbs to fluorescents to LEDs – consumption is reducing, and that is largely a result of governmental policy.”

She said: “Reducing energy use is by far and away the best thing we can do – but it’s not as exciting as new technology.”

Power NI currently has at least 10,000 pro-sumers – customers who are microgenerating their own power. “Primarily from solar, but wind turbines and hydro as well,” Livingstone said.

“Battery storage will start to come along and make that even more viable. At the minute, the investment doesn’t match up for most people,” she said. “But an electric vehicle is a battery parked outside your house,” she pointed out.

She talked about how the utility suppliers have to adapt to this new world. “It changes the economics of how to pay for the grid; if people are off the grid but still need it sometimes, there’s a lot of head-scratching on how to make that work.”

Her final point was that no one should be left behind, particularly those in fuel poverty. “In NI we already have quite high levels of fuel poverty,” Livingstone said.

“Smart metering and the IoT can be a fantastic enabler – but it’s worth remembering it’s not free. We need customer protection to make sure people aren’t left behind who aren’t able to get into the renewable source game.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland