UCD engineering graduate and Foundation Day Medal recipient (2010) Dr Eddie O’Connor, founder of Airtricity and of Mainstream Renewable Energy, has a vision for Ireland as a major supplier of green energy. He is pressing ahead with plans for an ‘energy bridge’ between Ireland and Britain, to be built at an estimated cost of €13 billion. The country’s fortunes could be greatly improved as a result of the project and similar initiatives. Elsewhere, however, important steps are being taken to maximise the use of the country’s resources and existing infrastructure. Researchers at Irish third-level institutions have joined forces to explore ways of ensuring that this infrastructure is best adapted to cope with a future centred on renewable energy sources, with a central role being played by the UCD- based Electricity Research Centre (ERC). Founded in 1991 by Mark O’Malley, professor of Electrical Engineering at UCD, the industry-university research collaboration is based in Electrical Engineering at UCD with an Energy Economics branch at Trinity College Dublin. Its mission is to overcome challenges related to energy provision and climate change and to build human capacity in this vital sector. Among the many industry collaborators of the ERC are: Bord Gáis, Bord na Móna, the Commission for Energy Regulation, EirGrid, ESB International, ESB Networks, Intel, SSE Renewables and Viridian. [login type="readmore"] The Centre recently produced a report on the potential of renewables as a source of electric energy in association with the Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources, which concluded that upwards of 40% of our electricity production could be met by renewable energy sources. The growing centre comprise of five academic principal investigators, each of whom heads up a team of researchers. Dr Andrew Keane, SFI Charles Parsons lecturer in Electrical, Electronic and Communications engineering, has headed up a team of eight in the Systems Analysis Group for the past three years.
The son of an ESB engineer, Dr Keane spent time working at ESB Networks while conducting research for his PhD at UCD and served as visiting research fellow at the Institute for Energy Systems at the University of Edinburgh in 2008. “Our focus is on the physical grid, on how to integrate new technology into the grid, making best use of existing infrastructure,” he said. With this in mind, advanced mathematical modelling is required. In the past, there was scepticism about the utility of wind energy. However, Dr Keane believes that the ESB and EirGrid, among others, are adopting a progressive attitude these days. Nevertheless, big challenges remain. Ireland’s island system is not synchronised with the neighbouring UK system. “This presents unique technical challenges for Ireland in terms of cost and the difficulty of providing interconnection,” notes Keane. Ireland’s island status, however, also means that we benefit from “world-beating wind penetration on our own grid”. Fully harnessing this rich wind resources is the name of the game, he believes. This includes making best use of the existing network of wind farms, minimising the need for new pylons – usually resisted by people living nearby – and maximising the wind connected into the national grid. Having spent the summer of 2012 in Glasgow working for a firm called Smarter Grid Solutions, which is examining the commercial deployment of wind-control solutions on the grid and experiencing their project in the Orkney Islands, Dr Keane is well placed to explore the challenges of wind power. “We are trialling the use of wind farm technology with ESB Networks. It is around the control of voltage.” Without such controls, there will remain barriers to the further integration of wind into the network. Dr Keane’s group operates independently, securing its own funding, establishing its own network of contacts. It has received backing from the US-based Electric Power Research Institute and is working with the EPRI on two “world-leading field trials”. One deals with the control of wind farms, the second concerns the deployment of electric vehicles. In the case of the electric vehicles, the group has been looking at the problems for the network that can arise where several users access the grid at the same time. “We have developed control technology to schedule the charging of vehicles over the night time, in the least costly fashion, ensuring that no upgrades to the network are required,” says Dr Keane. While the use of electric vehicles remains restricted to date, he believes that Ireland must think ahead to a period when future take up is significant. Dr Keane believes that the solutions being developed at the ERC can be applied to other alternative energy sources such as solar panels or electric heating. “Our work is generic. We will be able to model the grid to manage these technologies. “The ERC is very much a collaborative operation. We are working with a group in Trinity College – in energy economics. We take a technical outcome and look at the policy implications from an energy economics perspective.” This means, for example, that a voltage control solution can be examined from the point of view of its impact on the societal bottom line. Elsewhere within the Centre, complementary activity is under way. Dr Terence O’Donnell has recently joined the ERC. His focus is on wind turbines and their electronic components. “What you have are lots of pieces of the jigsaw,” says Keane. “The grid is too large and complex to model in its entirety. You have to slice it down into pieces to capture answers to different questions.” As for long-term goals, he notes: “UCD has developed great capacity across the whole discipline of energy research. There are growing links with industry. We are pushing for further industry engagement and we are looking to the European Union. We already have some EU funding.” This article is courtesy of UCD Today (Spring 2013 issue)