Green energy – how electricity 2.0 will be bigger than Web 2.0

4 Dec 2008

As the ghost of the Celtic tiger haunts half-filled housing estates in mid-west towns, it’s time for forward thinkers to embrace Ireland’s future economic edge: green energy.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the technology industry today is all about smart phones and Web 2.0. But the smartest minds in Silicon Valley have their eyes and wallets on a bigger prize, and it’s a century-old resource called electricity.

Tech firms from Google to Microsoft and IBM realise that smart energy usage from homes to cars that can manage their own use of electricity and fuel, and even sell surplus electricity back to the power companies, will bring about a technological revolution that could eclipse even the internet.

At a briefing last week at the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, Seville-based Tom Raftery, a trained biologist and prominent blogger who runs a data centre in Cork called CIX and who is also an analyst at environmental consultancy RedMonk, pointed out where the tech world is really looking.

“If you placed an iPhone in front of Alexander Graham Bell, he wouldn’t recognise what it was. But if you put an electricity grid in front of Thomas Edison, he’d recognise it straightaway – that’s because electricity grids haven’t changed much in the past 100 years.

“These grids need to change, they need to harness electricity in smarter ways, and they need to harness renewable energy from wind, solar and wave power. If the electricity grid went the way of the internet in terms of interconnectivity, every householder and car holder could be a power broker.

“Ireland has a target of 40pc renewable energy usage. You can’t shut wind farms down if there is over-supply, so where does that energy go? Well, householders could have battery farms in their garages that could gather this power up and sell it back to power firms when resources are low. Smart meters in homes could buy power when prices are low and sell it back when there’s demand. The opportunities are fascinating.”

Raftery said that, at present, Ireland has just one interconnect with Northern Ireland. In the future, a global series of interconnects could turn the world into one single smart grid where electricity can be bought and sold via the internet, with consumption occurring in such a way that it is no longer an environmental threat.

At the recent visit of the Irish Technology Leaders Group to Dublin, a cohort of leading Silicon Valley executives, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs were expressly interested in the renewables space above most other technologies.

Johnny Gilmore, chief operating officer of Sling Media, confirmed this. “We looked at over 150 firms, and in the final top 12, the opinion of the US CEOs of venture capital firms was there were a couple of gems, particularly in renewables. There were very interesting firms that were very different and had huge opportunities for growth, particularly in the US.

“Silicon Valley, over the past 40 years, was built on chips and software. If you look at where the money is going now, it’s all going to green. Definitely, the money is going to green energy,” Gilmore said.

The opportunity is not lost on Elliott Griffin of BVP Investments, which has just launched a Green BES Fund focused on Irish tech firms that are creating alternative energy technologies, as well as renewable energy sources. The company is backing a number of players, including Wavebob, a wave-energy firm, and EFT Control Systems, a smart metering company, and CoolPower, a solar energy firm.

“Ireland could have a critical edge in the area of green energy. Companies we are working with see where it’s going. The future is about people having technologies in their home that are smart enough to turn off the electricity meter and use some of their own renewable energy. And if they don’t need all of it, they can sell it back to the grid. This is real technology in development now.

In a patch of Galway Bay, a device is being used to prove that waves can generate electricity. The company behind this technology is Maynooth-based Wavebob.

WaveBob’s Andrew Parish says Ireland is planning to be a key player in the field of renewable energy, with the ESB planning to deploy 35,000 smart meters to Irish homes by next year. He adds that there are over 30 applications for offshore licences for acres of wave-energy farms off the west coast with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

“Ireland is one of the first countries in the world to set targets for renewable energy, and the target is to have 500 megawatts of green energy going to homes and businesses by 2020.

“In our own case, we are targeting two sites off the coast of Mayo for a 250 megawatt wave farm that would power up to 20,000 homes.”

Another firm making waves, in a different way, in the electricity 2.0 space, is Cork-based Synergy Module. It has developed a device that sits in factories and takes on board electricity pricing information, making decisions based on the price of that electricity before switching power supply to diesel generators.

The bigger picture of Synergy Module’s opportunity is applying the same principle in homes and cars.

Jerry Sweeney of Synergy Module explains that the power grids around the world are a bit like the wild west, there’s no synchronicity and power is consumed and wasted.

“Ireland could be a world leader in demand-response technology and define the rules for the global smart grid or electranet. We can lead and others can follow.

“Ireland aims to be the first grid in the world to reach 40pc renewables and have exporting technology. There’s no other location on the planet with a small grid and high dependency on wind so, in this situation, we can be out in front.

“Real-time electricity pricing is going to be a global phenomenon,” Sweeney says.

Raftery agrees. “The problem with renewables is that it will lead to major spikes in supply. For example, wind energy provides the greatest supply at night when supply is low. The smart grid of the future should never sleep.

“Unless we develop technologies that help homes, businesses, and power firms react to demand forces, we may never reach that 40pc target by 2020.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: NUI Maynooth-based Wavebob has plans to build two wave farms off Ireland’s west coast


John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years