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Innovating for a low-carbon impact

It may be hard to believe, but it is 10 years since ESB installed the first public electric vehicle (EV) charge points in Ireland. Back then, there were just a handful of early adopters ready to embrace what was then an exciting new technology. A lot has happened since, both in terms of government policy, and how customers are progressively embracing electric cars.

Innovation in the emobility sector was central to that change.

Range anxiety is no longer an issue thanks to new battery technology and there is a greater choice of EVs on the market too. New high-powered charging hubs are being added to an already comprehensive public network which in turn builds confidence. The switch to EVs is also attributable to consumer acknowledgement that we all have a part to play in creating a low-carbon future, with transport one of the main contributors to Ireland’s carbon emissions. 

Accelerating transition

The transition to a low-carbon energy world is not simple or instant, as exemplified by the country’s development of wind energy. From one operational wind farm in 1992, Ireland now ranks second in the world for its share of national electricity provided by wind energy. The development of offshore wind will further drive this programme of harnessing our natural resources to create clean, renewable energy for our homes, farms and businesses.

The coming decade is considered critical in this respect, as Ireland aims to reach its energy and emission targets by 2030.

But this change is already happening as energy companies – including ESB – continue to invest in new, renewable technologies and collaborate with other innovative companies and entrepreneurs to develop exciting customer solutions.

ESB Network’s Dingle Project is a good example of how individuals and communities are reaping the benefits of this innovative thinking and collaboration. The three-year project explores the impact and capabilities of emerging low-carbon technologies and examines how customers and communities interact with them.

Five ambassadors were selected from hundreds of applicants to adopt new technologies in their homes and businesses, such as batteries, heat pumps and solar technology, with each sharing their experiences and what they learned, with their wider communities. 

One of the ambassadors, local Dingle man Dinny Galvin, is now spearheading an initiative to encourage 120 of his fellow West Kerry farmers to invest in energy saving technology. Dinny, like so many others around the country, is showing that small changes can make a big impact on our environment.

ESB Networks is running similar smart network projects on the Aran Islands too and is a member of the +CityxChange project in Limerick which is exploring ways in which smart cities can integrate energy solutions.

“For over 90 years, ESB has used advanced technology and innovation to provide Irish customers with a world-class electricity service. That drive and ambition remains as true today, as we embrace the challenges and opportunities in leading the transition to a low-carbon future,” says Denis O’Leary, head of innovation at ESB.

Smart solutions

Such projects show customers how they can play an active role in the transition to a low-carbon future, by adopting new technologies such as solar panels, EVs and batteries, and moderating their use of electricity to make the system more efficient.

For instance, it’s possible that in the near future, electric vehicle owners could be rewarded for charging their cars at times when electricity is plentiful and cheap to produce, or even for supplying energy from their car batteries to help balance the grid.

“Over the next decade or so, Ireland will go from having a few thousand EVs and heat pumps to hundreds of thousands reliant on the electricity network, and from thousands of smart meters and contactable devices and sensors to millions. This transition requires significant investment, innovation and design thinking from renewable generation to consumer facing products and services,” explains O’Leary.

The current rollout of smart meters will help customers better understand their own electricity usage in order to become more energy efficient. Once smart meters are fully operational, electricity supply companies will offer new smart products and services, giving customers more choice and enabling them to shift some of their consumption to off-peak times when electricity is cheaper.

Another exciting customer project that is being trialled is peer-to-peer trading. This involves the buying and selling of energy (often in the form of solar energy) between two or more grid-connected parties, such as neighbours. Any excess energy can be transferred and sold to other users via a secure platform. While still in its infancy, it shines a light on the type of control customers could have over their energy generation and consumption in the near future.

Collaboration is key

ESB is a founding member of the Free Electrons programme. This is a global programme that connects worldwide utilities with entrepreneurs and start-ups, to refine and test their energy saving products and help accelerate their development. Essentially, this programme is seeking out ‘disruptive’ ideas that will change the way customers interact with energy products and services.

As a result of this programme, ESB is currently undertaking pilots with five international energy start-ups and continues to work with previous finalists.

For instance, French company Sterblue is working with ESB to carry out inspections of its wind farm portfolio using off-the-shelf drones and artificial intelligence, optimising the running time of each turbine and allowing ESB to generate more clean electricity.

Collaboration such as this has huge benefits for the customer and is not restricted to start-ups. The obvious example being SIRO, a joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, which has allowed thousands of people to work from home during these challenging times thanks to its ultra-high speed fibre-to-the home offering.

Green ambition

To develop new ideas for a low-carbon future, all energy organisations need to generate a culture of innovation. They need to know their customers and know how best to identify and develop solutions for them.

From the rollout of Ireland’s rural electrification scheme in 1946 to developing the country’s only pumped storage station at Turlough Hill in 1974, ESB has long led the transition to greener energy solutions.

That same ambition and drive holds true today. ESB’s X Potential incubator programme is just one way in which the company is responding to the changes in the market. All of ESB’s 7,000-plus people are invited to submit innovative ideas that support the company’s ambition to lead Ireland's transition to a low-carbon future.

The aim of the incubator programme is to transform the best of these new business ideas, developed by ESB’s people, into proposals that it can consider for investment and implementation, whether that’s the conversion of farm waste to energy or the creation of new retail apps.

“Behind every great idea, there are great people. At ESB, we have always believed in supporting our people, our partners and start-ups in the development of innovative ideas that will lead to a brighter future for all,” adds Denis O’Leary.  

ESB also runs an annual internal awards programme to recognise the people and teams which are actively finding new and innovative ways to work better.

Sharing these new initiatives across the organisation doesn’t just have a positive impact on company morale, it helps the ESB deliver on its corporate strategy, called – appropriately – Brighter Future.