Author: Dr David Connolly, associate professor, Aalborg University, Denmark
As we move into the dark and cold winter months, it is very likely that you are reading this article with the aid of a light bulb and in the comfort of a warm building. These services and their abundance are iconic of the luxuries we enjoy in a 21st-century Ireland, but unfortunately, our appreciation for these essential services has not evolved as fast as our dependence on them.
I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Limerick for four years. During my final year, I joined a study tour to Moneypoint power station, Ireland’s largest power plant, in the west of Co Clare. This was going to be an exciting trip, since we were also completing a course on power plants during this period, so my classmates and I were well equipped with questions for the tour guide ahead.
Although it was almost 10 years ago, I still have many clear memories from the tour that day: the shipyard, the turbine room, the control room and many more. But one memory will stay with more than any other, a very short memory, about a very simple question: where does the heat go?
The tour guide was explaining the production process that occurs in the power plant: the coal is delivered, the coal is burned and the electricity is produced. The scale of the plant was extremely impressive. Moneypoint can provide electricity for approximately 500,000 households. During the discussions, the tour guide explained that only 35-40% of the energy from the coal is converted into electricity, while the rest of the energy is produced as heat. It led to that question, where does the heat go? The simple answer was: into the river Shannon. From that moment, I knew energy would become my career.
How can we live in a society where 60% of a product is simply thrown away? More importantly, how can we live in a society where 60% of a product, the energy from coal, which is loaded with so much political and environmental concerns, is simply thrown away? Note that this 60% is enough heat to supply approximately 300,000 households. For me, answering this is no longer just a simple question; it is a personal ambition and my everyday work for the last seven years.
The structure of the energy system in Ireland is extremely simple, although its scale still makes it very challenging to operation. Figure 1 provides a graphical representation of the key components in the Irish energy system, demonstrating how electricity, heating and transport are provided today. The two key features from this diagram are: