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Community energy in Ireland: the technological aspects

Published by Feasta on 2014-08-25
Original article: by Erik Jan van Oosten

The community energy policy position paper (CEPPP) is written by 18 Irish organizations [1], including Feasta. It gives a great and much needed overview of the barriers and potential for sustainability existing in the Irish energy system. While I do share most opinions expressed in this paper and strongly encourage the collaborative effort I feel that some segments would benefit from a more nuanced discussion. In three parts I will discuss some of the societal, technological and financial aspects proposed in the Community Energy Policy Position Paper with the aim to contribute to the discussion on the future of the Irish energy system. Part one with the societal aspects can be found here and part two on the financial aspects here.

Part 3: The technological aspects

It is important to keep in mind that technologies aren’t neutral. When for example photovoltaic solar is chosen as a means of generating energy you not only increase the self-sufficiency of your direct environment (economic sustainability) but decrease the social and environmental sustainability of other communities, most likely to be located on the other side of the globe. The environmentally damaging mining of rare metals and the manufacturing in big factories in China under poor working conditions are two of the externalities not reflected in the price of the product.

Another aspect to consider is the complexity of the product. Generally: The more complex, the easier it breaks and the harder it will be to fix it. Simpler technologies are often more easy to recycle or adapt to unforeseen situations. If the goal of the project is to revitalize the local economy it makes sense to see if maintenance can be sourced locally and thereby create local jobs. There are specific certificates needed for engineers to be able to maintain wind power, while the roof assessment, cleaning and installation of solar panels might be a bigger job creator.

I’m pleased to see that Off-grid solutions and smart grid experiments are included in the CEPPP. Micro-grids are at the forefront of technological innovation but more low-tech approaches are just as worthwhile to consider. Solar boilers can be a more cost effective or climate friendly solution than solar Photovoltaic for example. Another idea that fits the off-grid spirit is the pre-industrial windmill. The energy is not converted to electricity but used directly to produce goods. The advantages are that less energy is lost in the conversion of energy as the mechanical energy can directly be used in a production process. Pre-industrial windmills used direct energy for sawing or grinding purposes but any process that requires moving parts is suitable. This model is as far as I know not applied yet with modern materials but can be a very inventive off-grid solution. The investment costs are lower because there is no need to obtain a grid connection, expensive power converters or high tech materials. The downside of mechanical energy is that it only works with processes that allow for intermittence and the operation has flexible working hours and production rates imposed by nature. I recommend reading Kris de Decker’s article “The history and potential of mechanical wind” [2].

A technology that is needs clarification is the smart meter. This term is used for a wide range of technologies. They range from high tech devices that allow users to manage their energy and take control of their devices, sometimes even with apps for remote control, to devices that are essentially the same as regular meters but with the ability to send data to the energy provider regarding usage and the ability to implement variable pricing of energy. The first type empowers the end user, the second mostly benefits the energy provider and grid operator. These are just the two extremes and various gradations exist. Including a list of what is expected of this smart meter in the CEPPP would make sure that the desired flavour of “smart” is implemented.

Overall conclusion on the CEPPP:

There are societal, financial and technological aspects that are worth considering in the debate on the future of the Irish energy system. Energy is far too important and omnipresent to be only discussed in terms of money. While Ireland ranks 22th out of the 28 European countries3 on renewable energy it is important to realize there is not a single, dominant reason why Ireland is not performing well. When it comes to community energy there is a wide variety of problems, obstacles and inconveniences. Most barriers however are not, as far as I can tell, purposefully designed to discourage the implementation of renewables and most of them can be resolved or mitigated by implementing the measures as proposed in the CEPPP. The obstacles are plentiful but none are insurmountable as the successful Templederry project shows. There is a huge potential in Ireland for a flourishing community energy movement and it is fantastic that 18 organizations united their efforts in writing the Community Energy Policy Position Paper. I’d love to discuss about these ideas in the comment section below and I’m willing to develop these ideas for incorporation in the CEPPP if desired.


[1] The organizations involved: ACE Co op, Atlantic Coast Energy Co operative Limited, Comharchumann Fuinneamh Oileáin Arainn (Aran Islands Energy Co Op), Cork Environmental Forum, Ecologics Solar Makes Sense , Energy Co operatives Ireland, Energy Wise Consultants, Feasta, The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, Friends of the Earth, Good Energies Alliance of Ireland , LEAF, Collaborating for a Sustainable Future in Laois, MEGA, Micro Electricity Generation Association, MozArt Ltd Architecture Landscape Urban Design, Peoples Energy Charter, Syspro Systems for Progress Ltd, Tipperary Energy Agency, Waterford Energy Bureau, XD Consulting.
[3] Share of renewable energy up to 14.1% of energy consumption in the EU28 in 2012. Eurostat News Release, 11 March 2014.

Featured image: 18th century windmills at the Zaanse Schans in the Netherlands – Oilmill De Zoeker, paintmill De Kat and paltrok sawmill De Gekroonde Poelenburg. Source: Author: Redshirt

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