Business Technology

Sunday 17 December 2017

Dimplex sets out to power the next phase of the growing global revolution through energy-storage systems

The energy industry is on the cusp of a revolution right now, Glen Dimplex CEO Sean O'Driscoll tells Joyce Fegan - and it's a revolution that will bring big savings to the everyday household budget

This project is about us saying we now want to take the technology to the next level, says Glen Dimplex chief executive officer Sean O'Driscoll Photo: David Conachy
This project is about us saying we now want to take the technology to the next level, says Glen Dimplex chief executive officer Sean O'Driscoll Photo: David Conachy
Joyce Fegan

Joyce Fegan

The climate change phenomenon means that everyone everywhere is looking for new ways to fine-tune energy use. And spearheading this worldwide revolution is a major EU-funded home-energy project called RealValue - set up by an Irish consortium led by billion-euro business Glen Dimplex.

The results of the Irish project, which will come out over the next three years, are set to have a massive international and economic impact.

Exactly 1,250 homes in Ireland, Germany and Latvia will have cutting-edge Glen Dimplex electrical storage systems installed in them as part of the project.

The aim is then to demonstrate how these small-scale energy-storage systems can provide benefits to the whole electricity supply chain, from generation to distribution and from suppliers down to the consumers.

The entire energy supply chain is working together on this groundbreaking project, from ESB Networks to Intel (the heating system in the home will be controllable from an app) and from EirGrid to SSE Electricity.

Sean O'Driscoll, chief executive of Glen Dimplex - which is the world's largest manufacturer of domestic heating appliances - says the energy revolution is here and now it's just a matter of joining all the dots across the various industries.

"We are selling Quantum (the electric heating and storage system being rolled out in 1,250 homes) and have been selling Quantum for the last three years as a heating device which has a 27pc lower running cost (than its predecessor).

"So we're already selling the unit on that basis and that's a standalone basis and we have sold 80,000 of them between the UK and Ireland over the last three years," said Mr O'Driscoll, proving that the results of the RealValue project will be able to stand up on their two feet in economic terms.

The RealValue project has a total of 13 partners on board, including energy economists from UCD and businesses from both the public and private sector.

The Glen Dimplex CEO explained: "What this project is now about is saying we now want to take the technology to the next level, we know we have a very good heating system which is operating in isolation from the overall energy ecosystem.

"We're now saying with connectivity, with digital connectivity, we can bring all of this together and provide it as a service to the electricity industry.

"That's 1,250 homes, that's what those business models are and within that there are about eight or 10 different income streams that can be generated out of that which can be passed on, part of it, to the consumer."

The results of the project can be divided into two parts, between the customer running their home off the electricity grid and then the industry, which is supplying the energy and ensuring its distribution.

"The customer is getting a much more controllable and a much more energy-efficient system and the running cost for a Quantum heater relative to its predecessor is a 27pc reduction, so there's a real, real tangible saving.

"It's completely controllable and you can also control it over an app. You're bringing a better solution to the home and you're bringing a cheaper solution to the home.

"Then the second side of all of this is, if you aggregate a population of homes, which is the 1,250 that we're talking about in this project, you can provide that as an energy store for the electricity system.

"There are times during the day, in the winter particularly, where it's very windy, and there's too much electricity coming onto the system.

"You can now find a home for that and when it's surplus to requirement it's cheaper, because after putting up the turbine, the costs are minimal. The wind is for free.

"So you're providing a balancing system to the grid operator and that is of real value to the grid operator and that will reflect itself in a better tariff and a better pricing structure for the customer," he explained.

One of the reasons this project, which won €12m in funding from the EU Commission under Horizon2020, is so radical is because it involves so many separate players, who together will make renewable energy possible for the average householder.

"There is very, very significant industry collaboration here in Ireland. So you look across the 13 members that we have, we have EirGrid, which is the grid operator in Ireland, we have ESB Networks, which is the networks operator, we have SSE Electricity, which is an energy provider.

"Now that would be unheard of to be able to get the sector together, to get that together in another country would be virtually impossible. We are able to do that here in Ireland.

"It's five years of very, very hard work. At a very early stage, we would say EirGrid, ESB Networks and SSE Electricity got this immediately."

Another key player to come on board was Intel, bringing the project to a whole other level of applicability.

"The other thing we love about this is, we got an absolutely cold-call from Intel research, [in] November 2011.

"They knew why they were making the call, they heard it in Brussels that we were working on something very significant in this area," explains Mr O'Driscoll about how the technology giant became involved.

"They were building out a gateway technology platform for electric vehicles and concluded that there wouldn't be a population of electric vehicles to deliver what they wanted any time soon, so they were looking to see how could they deploy this technology into something that would be available quickly and then they heard of our heating technology and they approached us to see if we wanted to work with them."

By the time Intel came on board, it meant that RealValue now had indigenous Irish industries (Glen Diplex) working alongside the country's largest foreign direct investor (Intel), as well as ESB and EirGrid from the public sector and then the UCD Energy Research Centre.

And the parties promise to have the results of RealValue as soon as possible, so that it can be implemented and rolled out into the real world.

"We're looking here at a three-year project, we are six months into the project and we won't be waiting until the very end to find out the lessons from this.

"As we're going along, we're getting information and using information and we're moving along our business model.

"So this is not waiting for the big bang at the end of the three years, this is a progressive learning process and as we're doing it.

"We will then be using that to put that platform over all of the houses that currently have the heaters installed," Mr O'Driscoll said.

Furthermore, this project is something the whole world is keeping an eye on, and it is not just a project relevant to a small island on the fringe of Europe.

The island just happens to be the perfect research ground for it.

"This has international opportunities. We will be working on this concept everywhere from Tasmania through to Nova Scotia. Word gets out. This actually has international appeal and opportunity. Ireland is at the forefront of this.

"The wonderful thing about Ireland is, we actually have it in the era of energy that we're heading into, and we're only at a very, very early stage of it.

"Ireland being an island with very little connectivity, hugely dependent on fossil fuels historically, it throws up all of the problems that this industry will have worldwide and those problems can be studied, they can be researched and the solutions found, which not only have relevance to Ireland but to the UK, to Germany, to France," explained the Glen Dimplex CEO.

Key figures from countries like Spain and Portugal are already seeking to speak to the leaders of the RealValue project, because they have the "same problems."

So will Ireland be home to the world's next Silicon Valley, having spearheaded this international home-energy project?

"I would be very hopeful that the answer to your question, 30 years from now, is that we look back at it and say, 'Ireland was at the forefront of this,'" answers Mr O'Driscoll.
Right now, however, Denmark and not Ireland is at the forefront of renewable energy consumption, something that has benefited the country's economy too.

"The country that we think has the best energy policy in the whole world at this time is Denmark. Denmark has a national policy of saying that by 2050, it will be completely independent of fossil fuels, irrespective of the price.

"They've already started the process of getting there and if you look at the Danish economy over the last 15 years it's grown by about 40pc, and its energy consumption has been reduced by 18pc.

"So again to the people who say, 'all this does is over-layer the consumer, the customer, the industry with costs,' they're wrong. Denmark has the policy and framework that we can all look at and say, 'that's the way to do it,'" explained Mr O'Driscoll.

Other people who he believes are 'wrong' are those stockbrokers and detractors who say that the green energy industry is a long time off being economically sustainable, aside from government grants.

"Well firstly I would say to the stockbrokers, if they were saying that to me, I would say, 'you're wrong, the technology is there.'

"All the parts are there from a technology point of view, it is connecting the parts.

"We've sold 80,000 of these units (Quantum heating and storage units) as stand-alone, discreet heating systems, so the technology, the hardware is there to do it, what we're now working on is the connectivity side of it and bringing it together.

"So the technology is there, the connectivity will be there very, very quickly," said the CEO.

In terms of Ireland, where a whopping 52pc of homes are oil-heated, it seems like it would take a long, long time before the results of the RealValue project could be implemented here. Europe will have to push us on.

"Europe has set a 2050 target to electrify heat and transport. If we were sitting here in 2025 or 2030, I think we'd be having a very different conversation.

"This is not something that's going to happen overnight, this is the start of a journey and we are at a very early stage in the journey," said Mr O'Driscoll.

And perhaps he is right, considering that no less than 195 countries at COP21 (conference of parties) in Paris this month agreed to a landmark deal.

These countries, Ireland included, aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will limit the global average temperature to rise "well below" 2C (3.6F) compared to pre-industrial levels - 2C is a level of warming that is deemed to be the point when dangerous climate change could threaten life on Earth.

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