On Christmas morning last year, dozens of homes across the Republic of Ireland woke up to a hot water tank that had been heated up overnight – for free.
These households were part of a pilot project by the pioneers Social enterprise EnergyCloudwhich has found a way to harness excess wind energy on stormy nights to help people affected by energy poverty.
All that is required is to install a special switch that allows EnergyCloud to activate hot water production when there is ample energy in the grid. With a manual switch, the hot water tank can still be heated whenever he wants and also turn off the whole system if he is not at home for some time.
“We can remotely send a message that clicks your hot water and warms your soak at night,” explains Derek Roddy, co-founder of EnergyCloud. He adds that free hot water has been delivered several times over the past year, not just on Christmas morning.
have energy prices in Europe skyrocketed in the last few years, due to demand shifts during the pandemic and more recently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That triggered a worrying increase in fuel poverty but efforts to help are underway. Renewables in particular could help.
EnergyCloud is a non-profit social enterprise with an 11-person volunteer board of directors. Funding and technology are being donated by EnergyCloud partners including Roddy’s company Climote, utility company SSE Airtricity and Amazon Web Services.
People who receive free hot water will receive SMS alerts so they know when it’s available. “It makes a difference in people’s lives,” adds Roddy.
Hot water tanks, he says, can be reimagined as batteries: “A typical hot water tank would store 6kWh of energy in hot water, which is an amazing amount of energy.” Adding up all the hot water tanks in Ireland, the total would be around 6GWh.
Excess energy from wind farms is an increasingly expensive problem. In 2022, the UK National Grid paid £215m to switch off wind power when the electricity was not needed – costs that are passed on to consumers and drive up prices further. EnergyCloud has found a way to harness excess energy while helping people who may be struggling to pay their energy bills.
In theory, everyone benefits from this – not least because a lack of heating and hot water can cause or worsen health problems. The UK Building Research Establishment estimates cold houses cost the National Health Service in England alone more than half a billion pounds a year.
Other initiatives to support households affected by energy poverty in the past included a program that was installed in Scotland Tesla Powerwall batteries in more than 100 homesalthough Roddy notes that if you can instead divert energy to existing hot water storage tanks, the cost is minimal.
EnergyCloud says it aims to have its remote controlled hot water tank switches installed in at least 10,000 homes by the end of the year and the company is already planning to expand into Northern Ireland and Scotland.
“It’s a really interesting concept,” says Marilyn Smith of the nonprofit EnAct, which researches social issues surrounding energy use. However, she notes that some people may be reluctant to allow remote-controlled devices to be installed in their homes. So far, this has not been an obstacle for EnergyCloud. All participants were voluntary and, according to Roddy, 65,000 other households have already expressed an interest in participating.
A “public good”
Smith argues that emerging energy companies are increasingly presenting renewable energy (and excess electricity) as a potential “public good.” Other European ventures have tried to make it easier for low-income households around the world to have direct access to renewable energy. Take trine, a 16-strong Sweden-based company that enables people to invest in solar energy projects in Africa, Asia and Central America. So far, more than 80 million euros have been raised via the platform.
“There’s a lot of technology out there – batteries, panels, converters,” says Trine founder Christoffer Falsen. “It’s really about being able to accelerate that with the capital injection.”
He explains that Trine-funded programs can, for example, allow a household in Kenya to purchase a solar panel in installments, giving them access to cheaper electricity and moving them away from fossil-fuel generators extremely common in much of Africa. To date, nearly 3 million people worldwide have gained access to renewable electricity funded by Trine’s investors.
Although it was previously “unthinkable,” Falsen says Trine may soon allow investors to back renewable energy projects in Europe: Rising energy prices on the continent means higher profitability of energy projects, so potential returns have increased as well. In the past, European ventures were not attractive enough in this respect.
“I think there’s going to be a bigger push for energy independence, and I think that’s going to be very good for this whole sector,” says Falsen. However, he notes that there are questions about whether high energy tariffs will persist in Europe, increasing uncertainty for investors.
Electricity at cost price
Europe’s growing cadre of ‘energy communities’ – groups of households participating in power generation projects such as small wind farms – already understand that energy independence can protect people from the highest bills.
A long-standing example is the community in Eeklo, Belgium, which benefits from wind energy harnessed by EcoPower. It makes electricity available to customers more or less at cost price.
“We have a lot of wind in our region,” says Jan de Pauw, project engineer at EcoPower. There are 65,000 EcoPower members in Flanders, with several thousand living in Eeklo. The company employs around 50 people, operates a total of 20 wind farms in Flanders and has raised 60 million euros in citizen capital to date.
“People join EcoPower not because they want to make a lot of money and have a high dividend, but because they want access to locally produced energy at a fair price,” says de Pauw.
The benefits have been evident over the past 12 months as energy bills have soared in Europe. EcoPower estimates that its members have saved around €700 on their total bill for 2022. To become a member, households have to buy a single share for €250, but people affected by energy poverty can pay it off in tiny installments of just €3.50 a month for six years.
Similar programs are flourishing across Europe, including Ripple Energy in the UK.
As renewable energy generation increases on the continent, opportunities for sharing or low-cost distribution of energy in the forms described above are expected to increase.
All of this could have other implications as well, helping people in low-income or fuel-starved households. Roddy says that when participants in the EnergyCloud pilot heard that their free hot water would come from local wind farms, they expressed their ardent acceptance of renewable energy. (TNW asked to speak to one attendee, but was told no one would be there shortly.)
Big, white, and pointy onshore turbines have occasionally been called an eyesore by some. But systems like EnergyCloud, which highlight the potential financial benefits of renewable energy, could change attitudes, argues Roddy.
“People understood that immediately. It wasn’t a hard sale,” he says. “I think we’re going to have people literally turning to their elected officials and insisting that wind farms and solar farms be built in their area.”