Ireland earned the nickname of the Celtic Tiger for its digital prowess during the 1990s IT boom. Subsequently bursting economic bubbles left the country looking for new opportunities.
Many Irish still look to the multinational IT powerhouses that continue to be a dominating presence in Ireland, like Microsoft, Intel and Hewlett-Packard, for answers. But Tom Collins, the newly appointed President of the National University of Ireland at Maynooth (NUIM), has been thinking about how his nation can be its own powerhouse.
“Our economic policy has been to make Ireland an attractive location for transnational enterprise,” Collins said. It did so, in part, he said, by creating a workforce educated in “a system that needed to produce passive workers” instead of an educational system that “requires a very different kind of graduate who is self-driven and self-directed.”
Collins has been thinking hard about how to change the direction of Irish education and remake the Irish workforce to produce its own Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Bill Hewlett or Andy Packard, if in a different sector.
Collins believes the elements of such a learning environment come by creating “learning opportunities that are real-world, that allow the students to interrogate rather than learning by rote, that allow them to learn through their hands and through their senses rather than purely cognitively, that allow them to see the learning in their daily environment, in doing things,” he explained.
Automsoft, a multinational software provider to the biotech and oil and gas sectors, is setting the pattern for Ireland’s transition. In the process, Paraic O’Toole, its CEO and the kind of man Collins wants Ireland to produce more of, could see his company become the Microsoft of Irish ET.
“We have to manage how energy is consumed and we have to use the existing infrastructure, because we don’t have the money to build a new one,” said O’Toole. “Automsoft can manage up to a million events per second and store up to four billion multiplied by 64 terabytes of data, a theoretical limit nobody has ever reached, without any degradation of performance. Whether you’re managing ten pieces of data or ten trillion pieces of data, the performance stays exactly the same.”
Typically, this kind of data management is handled with more and more hardware. But that becomes very expensive. “It all runs on standard desktop hardware,” O’Toole said.
During Ireland’s boom years, O’Toole found customers in biotech. As the country shifts to renewable energy, especially wind, O’Toole believes Automsoft is uniquely capable of making Ireland’s wind turbines and wind farms significantly more efficient.
“There is more data coming off a wind turbine than a natural gas-fired turbine because the fuel is variable,” O’Toole said. “Instead of one massive turbine at a power station, we’ve got a whole lot of little turbines.”
Industry standard SCADA turbine management systems do real-time controls but don’t store the volumes of historical data that would make possible pattern analysis over long enough time periods to allow operations optimization, according to O’Toole. As a result, wind turbines are built more robustly than necessary, at a higher cost, because they have to withstand the most severe unanticipated momentary forces. With the kind of data analysis Automsoft can provide, turbines can be adjusted to minimize the impact of forces coming at them, reducing the cost of manufacturing them.
Cool Power and Wire-Lite Sensors are examples of Irish startups with ambitions to follow in Automsoft’s footsteps.
Cool Power manufacturers an Energy and Microgenerator Manager (EMMA) that captures unused power from small-scale distributed electricity generation like rooftop solar and residential wind systems before it is sent to the grid. EMMA uses the electricity to heat and store hot water. According to Cool Power COO Richard Linger, a 10-kilowatt-capacity battery storage system would cost €7000 (plus installation) and require replacement in 7 years to 9 years, whereas an EMMA would capture and store 10 kilowatts for heating or hot water, cost €1500, have lower installation costs and last 15 to 20 years.
Cool Power is now selling EMMAs at about ten per week. EMMA’s larger impact, according to Linger, could eventually be in Demand Response. If distributed generation throughout a transmission system were linked to a utility’s command center, the amount of electricity being sent to a home’s storage by system-side EMMAs could be instantly reduced at a moment of demand surge with absolutely no impact on the home’s usage of power.
The company Wire-Lite Sensors sees a niche opportunity for energy management in smaller retail businesses that older players have missed, according to Sales and Marketing Director Tom Bean. “A kind of forgotten bit of the family,” Bean called his customers.
Wire-Lite installs the same monitoring sensors and function controls developed by veteran energy management practitioners for big-box stores and office buildings. Its goal is to optimize energy consumption and reduce it 25 percent without disrupting a retailer’s ability to serve its customers. Like Cool Power, the ultimate application of Wire-Lite’s technology, which is now growing one customer at a time, will come with the implementation of smart grid technology, when -- with wider use -- it would be able to take on demand response responsibilities.
Ireland’s ambitious startups are the means by which NUIM’s Collins may achieve the even larger purpose of his vision of remaking the nation’s workforce, a “shifting of Ireland’s global center of gravity from America to China, India, Russia and elsewhere,” Collins said, because “the Irish mind needs to navigate globally.”