Eco Eye 14, EP06 – The Future of Energy


[In truth, we love our warm houses, clean water, connected devices and hot coffee, our planes, trains and automobiles. Fossil fuels have given us so much, fueling lifestyles that our ancestors could hardly have imagined, but we need to leave fossil fuels in the past.] [The growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other. What should give us hope that this is a turning point, for this is the moment we finally determined we would save our planet.] [After the euphoria of the historic Paris climate change conference comes the challenge. The leaders of the world have committed to reducing emissions rapidly which spell a radical shift for Humanity away from the fossil fuels that underpin our society.] But we've finally decided to save our planet and our own health and we urgently need to find cleaner and smarter solutions to reach the targets set out at the Paris climate conference. [But can we move towards a more sustainable energy future without giving up all of the gains from coal oil and gas.

I'm a scientist and an optimist, and I'm convinced it can be done.] [Mankind has always needed energy and through the ages we've sought better and smarter solutions do to our need to feed, clothe and warm ourselves. But around two hundred years ago came an energy revolution. We began to discover what fossil fuels could do for us The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented prosperity to the world economies and our need for energy increased accordingly our population increased by seven times. Fossil fuels felt reliable and almost unlimited. But, since then we have become dangerously dependent on fossil fuels and while currently cheap oil prices could tempt us to turn her back on the future the message from Paris was very clear. It really is time to move to a new era and I want to learn about the innovative people in Ireland who will help us to do that. I'm starting my journey by meeting two experts to get a sense of how we're gonna tackle our energy challenges and plan for our future.

I'm speaking to David Korowitz, a systems thinker and physicist, and Eimear Cotter of SEAI about our reliance on fossil fuels and what our prospects will be without them.] Yeh, we're heavily reliant on fossil fuels, over 90% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and most of those are actually coming from abroad. So, that's very much where we're coming from with fossil fuels really woven into the fabric of our society and our economy. We think like we're in a country that we have this great autonomy but in fact we are interdependence so if we were to say for instance playing experiment and we were to shut down Ireland's borders – just put a wall around it – very quickly the economy would collapse. We couldn't keep our infrastructure going, our water clean, water going, our places of work, our bank link, our monies, values: all of these things are just go and that's a measure of the importance of energy. We do need to move away from fossil fuels, that is without a doubt.

If you think of the environmental damage of burning fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change – that is already happening here in Ireland and abroad – we need to move away from fossil fuels and onto a renewable path and there's nothing to be feared from that's. There's actually huge opportunities for us here in Ireland, we have an awful lot to gain, we have a lot of strengths and if we play to those strengths we will actually reap the benefits of this movement to low-carbon, decarbonisation economy. [After speaking to David and Eimear, I feel like we have a long way to go to leave fossil fuels in the past. So I'm starting my search for answers in one of the places I already know I used too much fossil fuel: my car. While I try to walk or cycle whenever possible, like most people I find it hard to live without my car so I want to find out how I can keep driving but cause less damage to the environment.

Ozone Cars can offer an immediate solution, converting existing petrol cars to cheaper cleaner fuel called liquid petroleum gas or LPG] [LPG is autogas, it's a clean fuels, it's a substitute fuel that we can use now on modern vehicles instead of petrol or diesel. It's a byproduct of the natural gas industry. And can I get this done to my car and converted over Absolutely. Currently worldwide there's about 27 million vehicles converters to autogas. So, LPG is cheaper then? It is indeed. LPG, at the moment is around 69 cents a litre so it's approximately half the price of traditional fuels and has been over the last three decades. And do you use hydrogen as well you said? We do indeed. This is an Irish product and the ultimate cell generates hydrogen gas which goes into the air stream which enhances the combustibility of the fuel.

Emissions can be reduced as high as 80% using this type of technology. [Ian showed me just how effective LPG can be for a heavy goods vehicle covering long distances.] As you can see here we've removed one of the diesel tanks and we've replaced it with an LPG tank. Typically an Irish truck would be using about a thousand litres of fuel a week so in this instance we'd be using 600 litres of diesel and 400 litres of the cleaner gas. This particular truck is on target to save over 10,000 euros in the first year. Wow, that's absolutely brilliant. So, Ian this seems like an absolute no-brainer. Are people taking this up? They are indeed Ireland is a little bit slow out of the blocks but if you look to China for example, some of the city's there, 95% of all public vehicles, taxis, buses, they're all running on LPG autogas.

It's a very very popular and clean fuel. [Although cheaper and cleaner, LPG is still a fossil fuel and ultimately we want to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But it could clearly be a practical medium term solution until alternative renewable fuels are viable. It surprises me that we haven't adopted it more particularly for public service vehicles. In Ireland, most car commutes are actually quite short. Many people still find it difficult to imagine themselves in an electric car seeing it as an inferior product with poor battery life aimed at eco-warriors but things have changed. I decided to take a test drive.] Sp this is a BMW i8, so this is is a plug-in hybrids, so this uses electric power, but it also uses a small petrol engine. this really is just BMW showcasing what can be done. The whole thing is carbon neutral all the production that goes into making this car comes from renewable sources like wind and water so the whole process is designed to be kinder to the environment. [In general, are we there? Is the technology there that these are as good as it used to?] I think it's it is for a lot of people it's pretty much there so it's about electric vehicles and battery technology it's like computer technology and smart phone: every year it gets better and better all the time.

What can we get up to in this? So this is limited to 250 kilometers an hour if you can find the race truck somewhere like here – Mondello Park- to try it out. [So Dave, look, that was great fun and it was brilliant. But probably not the most realistic option for everybody. Tell me a bit more about the realistic option then.] So, in the real world there's obliviously pure electric cars like the Nissan Leaf here. These sort of prices start at about twenty-two thousand euros. Driving range will get about two hundred kilometers you know fully charged. You're looking at a cost of two euro per charge if so it's quite easy to use. Give me an idea of the scale, so if this can do 200 kilometers how many kilometers do people normally drive in a day or even a week? So roughly the average European daily commute is about 37 kilometers and that's where electric vehicle actually makes a lot of sense because you're only gonna have to maybe charge it two or three times a week.

The cars themselves have zero emissions so there's no exhaust pipe, nothing comes out of this car. Okay, so it's easy enough on the bank balance and it's definately good for emissions. So, is there a strategy in place to move toward this technology? Tere are so many financial grants and financial benefits currently for people looking to buy new electric vehicles, probably not as much as other European countries are doing and so there could be more being done but I think people, when they look at how much driving they're doing the distances involved, electric vehicles actually make a lot more sense for a lot more people. [While most of the power for electric cars still comes from fossil fuels, they're still many times more efficient than a typical car. With only a few hundred electric cars on Irish roads, there will need to be a huge shift in policy and incentives if we are to make this change. Transport is only one part of the energy landscape and we need to make strides in other areas. Housing accounts for a whopping 27% of energy in Ireland, so I'm visiting a passive house to see what might be possible When Niall Walsh came to build his family home he decided to do it with their future in mind, creating one of the most energy-efficient houses in the country Niall's 3,000 square-foot home is modern, open plan and warm.

The windows are triple glazed so the heat from electrical appliances remains inside longer and it's all controlled by a smart energy management system. Despite the size of the house they have just three radiators which they rarely use. So, Niall, do you want to start and just tell me what is a passive house?] Well, a passive house is a house that you don't need to add or subtract any heating from. So, we have no real heating system so just stays nice and warm because of the insulation. So why did you decide you wanted to make this passive house? The reason I wanted to do it was, we were living in an old 50s house that was quite cold, quite expensive to heat.Coming in to my fifties I decided that I wanted to have zero utility bills or as close to zero as possible. Do you feel like you have to give up anything, any luxuries, to have this passive house? No.

Nearly the opposite in fact. The environment in it is truly fantastic because we have the mechanical ventilation pumping in loads of lovely fresh air that's preheated by the stale air. We have fresh air all day long but it's warm. You're very happy with it obviously? Oh, it's just unbelievable. Like, I could never just like I don't know how I could never go back to living in a non-passive house. [previously, Niall's family spent over four thousand euro a year on their energy needs. Now it's just a hundred and seventy euro on heating and hot water and about a thousand euro on electricity Nile could afford a comprehensive job but what would he do with a smaller budget to modify an existing home?] I'd put a mechanical ventilation system and then when I had more money, I'd upgrade the windows.

You can do it stages. You can do it. You can do it. You can do it. Definitely do it. [Jeff Colley, a sustainable construction expert, joins me at Niall's house to explain the challenges he faces in spreading the word about efficient homes.] One of the problems we face in promoting better standards is that Irish people have very low expectations of buildings. We're accustomed to cold damp moldy buildings. it is possible to build things that are comfortable but have constant fresh air all year round, you know you don't have this dreaded kind of don't want to get out of bed in the morning because of the cold and just they cost half nothing to run. Well, if it's all these amazing benefits, how do we make this more widespread in Ireland? So we need our policymakers to step up. Dun Laoighre – Rathdown County Council actually – funnily enough, having visited this house last January – have decided just recently to make the passive house standard a requirement for all new buildings – not just housing – in the county and that will kick off in March.

[Now, all new homes across the country must meet a minimum standard of A3 which is a great start. The main challenge is to upgrade all existing buildings to this standard in the next few years. This will cost money but also create lots of jobs even with better built houses we will still need energy to feed into the grid not only for our homes, but also businesses, hospitals and the transport system.] I've heard talk of the giant solar fields in sun drenched Taxes capable of generating energy for millions of people, but I have to admit I'm a little skeptical when it comes to what we can achieve in dull and dreary Ireland when it comes to using the sun as an energy source. I've travelled to Wexford to meet Tom Foley of Solar Electric and find out what's possible here in Ireland.] So look, we're in Ireland, it's kinda got a reputation for being dull and dreary as we can see today.

Surely, we can't get enough energy from that sun to fuel these. We absolutely can and we've had them installed now for a number of years in Ireland and they work really really well. Today is probably one of the worst days you could get for PV but even today these panels are working here as well. Okay, we don't need to be able to get a sun tan, you're saying just light? Absolutely. Day's like today where it's cloudy, we even see from ourselves in maybe minus 3, minus 4 degrees and you've two coats on you in the middle of winter When it's a nice bright day, you can generate plenty of electricity to use in your house your home, your business. And then speaking of expensive, is this not a very expensive technology to put in your house. It was, the standard household might have cost you 20,000 euros to install five years ago.

We've installing household systems for 8-10 thousand euros now so it's halved in that time five year period. So, you're saying 8-10 thousand euros. Does it start to pay itself back after a certain amount of time. Absolutely, our typical paybacks now are probably in the eight to ten year bracket. We'd like to to see that to be a four year payback and subsidies will help us to get to that point. And, can you tell me little bit about the idea of the tariffs? Yeah, the feed-in tariff, the way they're developed across other territories in Europe was that you get paid to generate electricity so when you're producing power in your home and you're sending clean green electricity out to the grid for other people to use what you're not using it. At Solar Electric they use their power for heat light and hot water and also to charge their electric cars but for many the question is what will we do with our solar power when we're producing it but we're not at home to use it when it One answer is to sell it back to the grid and that's why we need feed-in-tariffs.

It feels particularly important when Tom shows me what the panels can generate even in winter. Well Lara, this is our web based monitoring system which monitors the production of the solar electric panels for our clients around the country. At least 50% of our clients would have web based monitoring. And so we can see then here, it's still working in winter and its working very well. Yeah, and you can see here the total here Lara. Since it was commissioned in 2013, it has produced a staggering 31,902 units of electricity which is a phenomenal amount of electricity when you think about it. What does 31,902 kw/h mean? The normal household will use about reusable 14 to 16 units of electricity or kilowatt hours per day so if you look at that there it's easy that would power six houses. [Driving in Tom's solar charged car, we traveled to nearby O'Shea's farm to meet Tommy O'Shea.

He installed two hundred and seventy thousand euro worth of solar panels to help power the refrigeration needs of his potato farm.] So Tommy, tell me a bit about what you did. I can see there's scaffolding and everything up here still. up to a terrorism Yep, well, there's up to a thousand individual solar panels on the roof and that would give us an installed capacity of about 210,000 kilowatt hours per year which is probably around 30,000 euros worth of electricity.The project will take maybe seven-eight years to pay for itself and we're hoping then in the longer term then that we will have free electricity for the sun for maybe, from year 10 to 20 or 25 so obviously it's not the total energy solution for a country but certainly as a way of reducing your overall carbon footprint, it's a very in-obtrusive way of producing renewable energy. [Seeing what I've seen today, I'm blown away by the potential of solar but what we have in Ireland is nothing compared to the solar farms they have in the UK and elsewhere where sunlight provides low-cost energy to the grid.

There clearly need to be action policy level to incentivize wider use of solar and provide the feed-in tariffs that will make it mainstream. We can generate power from the Sun despite our often dreary weather but we also have other resources in almost overwhelming quantities.Wind is a proven energy resource and we have lots of it. It's already providing 20% of Ireland's annual electricity but sometimes when the wind is really blowing we actually turn off turbines because they're generating more than we can use. The key to making wind more effective is finding ways to store the power and use it when we need it. I'm heading north to see an innovative new project that could be a game-changer for all renewable energy. Here I'm meeting Patrick McClughan of Gaelectric. The plan is to use excess renewable energy to compress air down into a huge underground cavern.

Then at times when we need more energy than wind can provide, they'll release the compressed air through a turbine to produce electricity just like water flowing through a dam. The project hasn't commenced yet but Patrick brought me over a kilometer underground into a nearby salt mine to give me a sense of how it's going to work.] There are times of the day when there is wind and it's generating electricity. Currently if there is no demand for that electricity then it won't be used and it will be spilled so integrating renewables, our project fits in perfectly. basically, the compressor sits above ground and they will take that air surrounding them, compress it to make it high pressure and then we used up to generate electricity So then how much electricity are we talking about? How many number of houses even could you fuel wiht this? Well, our project is around 300 megawatts in generation capacity. That's around a quarter million homes Wow, that's amazing.

That's a serious amount of energy really. And has this been done before? It's been done twice in the world but not for the integration of renewables One is for backup for coal-fired and the other is backup for a nuclear plant so everybody around the world is acknowledging that storage is the way forward, and in Northern Ireland we have a global first. [it's heartening to see that there are amazing innovations happening on the island that could, with the right support, solve some of our energy challenges. As a scientist myself I have faith in Irish minds to come up with cutting-edge solutions that could have applications around the world. I've heard exciting things about the Nanotechnology department in the University of Limerick. Dr. Kevin Ryan and his team scale down materials by a billion times changing their properties and making them useful for other purposes. One of those purposes is finding ways to solve the energy problems we face.

Imagine a cheap solar ink that could be painted onto rooftops and immediately convert them into solar panels. Using nano-crystals, Dr. Claudia Coughlan is creating just such an ink.] You can actually use this ink on, for example, roof tiles or on corrugated roofing and we can harness this clean source of energy that that's hitting our roofs every day and convert it in to usable electricity. The amount of energy that hits the earth in one hour is enough to power the entire world for a full-year, so our only challenge is to actually harness the solar energy that we get and to actually convert it into usable electricity. And, as I've learned, the big challenge is that once you can generate energy you need to find a way to store it. Longer-lasting cheaper batteries are key to the expansion of renewable energy and electric transport and here in Limerick they've actually cracked it.

Storage is probably the major challenge in energy at the moment, and that's where batteries are hugely important on a global level. Part of the work we're doing here is that we're looking at making better batteries essentially [Using nanotechnology, Dr. Ryan and his team will make batteries half the size and twice the power, the charge faster and last longer. This will be a complete game changer for electric transport and renewable energy around the world.] In the area of nanomaterials, Ireland has been leading this for a long time, so we're one of the top countries in the world in this area. The advantages of putting nanomaterials into batteries is huge. Electric vehicles is one, mobile phones is another, but also power wall technology which is essentially where every home would have a battery pack in the home and essentially what this is doing is acting as a store for renewable energy on the grid [Ireland still imports 6.

5 billion euros worth of fossil fuels every year. We have the resources and the technology to get this down to almost zero. I've learned that the obstacles are more political than technical. It's amazing what we can achieve when we facilitate smart people to solve the problems of the earth and I'm proud that many of the answers to our energy questions can be found right here in Ireland. This transition to renewable energy is already happening but we need to scale it up much faster..