Smart energy and thinking needed to electrify our nation’s economic future

23 Apr 2009

Building smart electricity interconnectors and gaining from renewable energy is a matter of urgency.

Brave – even epic – decisions today around harnessing alternative energy sources and investing in smart technologies could underpin Irish industry and our society’s future well into this century and beyond.

It was a brave decision by the fledgling Irish Free State in 1926, following the advice of a young engineer called Thomas McLoughlin, to build the Ardnacrusha power station and harness hydroelectric power between Lough Derg and Limerick.

This was a controversial decision at the time, as it required an investment of IR£5.2m and the young State had only IR£25.2m in its coffers. Wise heads prevailed and the ‘Shannon Scheme’ generated employment for over 5,200 people and had an output of 85 megawatts, enough for the entire country back then.

The technology used at Ardnacrusha came from the German industrial giant Siemens, and this week the same company is recommending Ireland moves fast to not only reduce greenhouse emissions from its cities and towns, but also to generate power from alternative sources such as wind and waves.

Siemens Ireland chief executive Dr Werner Kruckow explains: “To set the scene, Ireland produces over 70 megatons of CO2 every year. Ireland, right now, depends 80pc on imported fossil fuels.

“A scenario being put forward by the Irish Government is that 40pc of the country’s future energy needs can be supplied by wind and wave energy by 2020. The country needs to move fast if this is going to happen.

“Ireland needs to build, as a matter of urgency, smart interconnectors and grids that not only stiffen today’s networks but provide, even export, excess wind and wave energy to Western and Eastern Europe. If the wind isn’t blowing strongly enough, the smart network would import only what we need – be it hydro energy from Scandinavia or nuclear energy from France – on a smart network.

“Intelligent and high-powered grids are needed.”

Dr Kruckow says another important move would be micro-generation, with Ireland  currently falling behind international trends in this regard.

“Whoever can supply electricity on a smaller scale, be it farmers with wind farms and ocean-energy applications, needs to be incentivised.

“Also, solar power isn’t being encouraged. I can’t understand why the Irish don’t talk about this enough,” he adds.

“It has a climate similar to parts of Germany where state-of-the-art solar systems have been subsidised by the government for the past two decades. This is a matter for serious discussion.

“Our research indicates that micro-generation of electricity from sun, wind and waves can be a significant contributor to a future Irish smart grid. If Ireland gets this right, up to 50pc of its future energy usage could come from renewable sources,” explains Dr Kruckow.

It is also a matter of environmental urgency. At present, global demand for electrical power is 21,000 terawatt hours. This, he warns, could rise to 37,000 terawatt hours.

“Right now, 70pc of the world’s electricity resources to generate electricity comes from oil, coal, gas and nuclear.”

Ireland’s cities also need to change fast with regard to their CO2 outputs. In terms of CO2 emissions, Dublin produces 9.7 megatons every year per capita, compared with Munich (7.1 megatons) and London (6.3 megatons). The world target is two megatons per capita by 2050.

“If Dublin used technologies available today, it would reduce its carbon footprint by 28pc. Renewable-energy measures would have a rapid return on investment, and the best way to start is to change the energy mix of every city and town, incentivising farmers and individuals to engage in micro-generation.”

Last week’s news that ESB is planning to create at least 3,700 jobs and possibly as many as 6,000 in the development of new energy technologies – from e-cars to smart meters and smart networks – should be the jolt of energy the economy needs right now.

But, in fact, the development highlights the way the world is moving – in the direction of sustainable, alternative energy sources managed on smart interconnectors similar in dimension to the internet.

It also masks a deep-seated anger felt by large employers in Ireland at the high cost of electricity they are paying – a cost that rivals the cost of employing a skilled workforce – and these costs must be reduced urgently if Ireland is to have an industrial future.

Dr Geoffrey Taft, an expert on smart grids at Accenture, jokes how if Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was shown today’s internet he wouldn’t recognise it, but if the father of electricity, Thomas Edison, was shown a power grid, he’d say little has changed.

“The reality is that, in terms of electricity, we are dealing with an aging infrastructure. There is a tremendous need to focus on renewable-energy sources, and a recognition that electricity providers have to do more about supplying and working with customers,” he says.

“Electricity providers need to view the customer as a partner in energy delivery. This implies the use of digital technology. Utility companies up until now have been blind to this and, in many ways, the only way they were aware there was an outage on the network was when a customer complained.”

Adds Dr Taft: “Greater responsiveness is needed on the part of energy suppliers. If a TV network provider has an outage, they would often inform the customer beforehand. That thinking hasn’t entered the minds of utility energy providers.

“Clever companies are now looking at adding capabilities such as smart meters to provide much more information to make better choices about using energy.

“If, for example, they know at a given time that their mix of renewable-energy sources are strong, they can cancel the use of imported fossil fuels and save money and the environment. That’s smart thinking.

“The problem is utility companies haven’t had the giant investment cycles other industries have had. Their industries are overdue not only a revamp of the technology they use, but also where they get their energy from and how they deal with their customers,” warns Dr Taft.

Concludes Siemens’ Dr Kruckow: “Technically, all of this is a no-brainer. It’s time to end short-term thinking and take a longer view. A move to smart grids and renewable sources would create immediate jobs in construction and give another payback because the country’s energy bill will be reduced considerably.

“In 1926, Thomas McLoughlin was brave enough to convince the Irish government to part with 20pc of the country’s available budget and take an enormous leap of faith. At the time, people complained that it was a waste of money, but it effectively electrified the Free State.

“If Ireland can take a similar leap of faith now, think of the legacy. The nation is short of money, but it owes it to the large employers and citizens who have taken leaps of faith in their own way to help the country,” he says. 

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Energy on our doorstep: the future of Ireland’s energy potential rests in drawing on our wind, ocean and solar power, helping to reduce our over-reliance on imported energy, while also generating new employment streams