How digital ‘crystal balls’ aim to fix Ireland’s big carbon problem

21 Jun 2019

Image: © Schlierner/

The MaREI centre based in UCC is hoping to shape Ireland’s energy future by looking into the ‘crystal ball’ of computer models.

Ireland’s response to the growing climate emergency was put under the spotlight this week as the Government revealed its Climate Action Plan. Its hope is to reverse the country’s reputation as a climate ‘laggard’ through a big renewable energy push and various other measures at a local and State level.

This week also marks EU Sustainability Week, an annual event organised by the European Commission to bring together public authorities, private companies, NGOs and consumers to promote initiatives to save energy and move towards renewables.

While a daunting task, one Irish research centre is attempting to aid in this radical change of mindset the country is experiencing by looking into the future using a ‘crystal ball’. Of course, this isn’t in the literal sense. It refers to the powerful computer models created and tested at the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI), the Science Foundation Ireland research centre based at University College Cork.

Using these models, research fellow Paul Deane and others at MaREI can simulate thousands of possible different futures for Ireland’s energy system. Each of these potential futures reflects a myriad of different choices, decisions and pathways for Ireland.

The Rubik’s cube problem

In this case, the ones tested at UCC belong to a special branch of prediction called integrated energy system models. As the name suggests, these are integrated across the energy system and economy to enable researchers to look at all aspects of energy use in our daily lives. Previous techniques would only look at one element of energy in isolation, such as how Ireland uses electricity.

This, Deane said to, “is a little like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube by looking at one side only”. The newer MaREI models, however, take advantage of high-performance computers to look at all the sides of a problem.

These models have already been used to create Ireland’s first low-carbon roadmap in 2015, which informed a number of different aspects of earlier climate legislation for the Government.

“We demonstrated that Ireland can reduce energy emissions by 80pc at a cost that is not excessive,” Deane said. “Today, we are using our models to understand how we can actually push beyond the ambition in the Climate Action Plan and deliver greater reductions of near 100pc in line with our international commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.”

Things aren’t so simple, he added, noting the difference between what maths can tell us about our world and what we as human beings can.

‘Coherent world devoid of the beauty’

“These models see a mathematically rational and coherent world devoid of the beauty, emotion and passion that make human behaviour so hard to forecast and predict,” Deane said.

“Part of our skill is reconciling this mathematical world of the computer with reality. We have learned that examining the future is a humble science, and great care must be taken not to confuse the excitement of scientific insights for predictions.”

There is greater optimism, he said, for the recent Climate Action Plan’s calls for greater use of microgrids among the public, whereby excess, locally generated renewable energy through solar or wind could be fed back into the national grid.

Looking to the future, Deane sees these computer models playing an even more important role for Ireland as it works towards the ambitious goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. He added that harnessing the power of cloud computing and big data was an exciting opportunity as it could help develop the “possibility to explore the uncertain future in greater detail and resolution”.

“We have already tested some of these techniques to our global models and we are very excited!”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic