Free Electrons programme: ‘You could think of it as the X Factor for tech start-ups’

Bootcamp event aims to mine the best carbon reduction ideas from tech start-ups

Free electrons is something that all of us could do with at the moment, given the size of the average electricity bill lately. A global programme, aptly Free Electrons, is a ‘utility accelerator’ which sees seven of the world’s leading electricity generators and suppliers get together to pick the brains of the best energy tech start-ups.

The ESB is one of the seven utilities involved and this year, it’s hosting a Free Electrons “bootcamp” in Dublin, the second time that the programme has been held here. The other global participants are AEP (USA), CLP (China), EDP (Portugal), E. On (Germany), Hydro Québec (Canada) and Origin Energy (Australia).

Customers might wonder why ESB doesn’t just make people’s electricity bills cheaper, rather than investing in this programme.

Actually, that’s pretty much the point, as Donal Phelan, ESB’s head of strategy, innovation and transformation, told The Irish Times. “What’s set the market price in the past 12 months has been well and truly out of anyone’s control and probably beyond the parameters of how the global electricity market was originally set up,” said Phelan.


“But, we are certainly seeing some efficiencies from the ideas that come out of Free Electrons. Moreover, the burden of decarbonising not just the electricity industry but adjacent industries – such as transport, agriculture, heat, industries that rely on electricity – can be helped by such innovations. It’s all helping Ireland Inc.

“If electricity isn’t green, then anything you store it in and anything that uses it won’t be green either and for Ireland to reach its 2050 targets, the electricity sector has to move faster than most. To not then pass the cost of that on to the consumer, we need to be using programmes like Free Electrons to find the best and most cutting-edge ideas.”

So far, the Free Electrons programme has triggered $80-million in investments into new ideas and technology, shared between the seven utility providers.

How does Free Electrons work? You could think of it as the X Factor for tech start-ups. The ESB, and the other utility providers, will advertise in various trade and academic journals across the world, letting innovators and start-ups know that they’re looking for proposals. This year, more than 750 applicants were submitted and each utility company takes a chunk of that longlist to turn into a shortlist. This will consist of 60 proposals, each of which must then put together an eight-minute presentation, to be followed by eight minutes of questions from a Dragons Den-like interview board, all carried out over Microsoft Teams.

“We bring each applicant to the top of Dún Laoghaire pier, walk down the pier with them, walk back up the pier and then, that’s question time finished. No stopping for ice-cream,” says Phelan.

It’s not quite that brief, of course. After the elevator pitch by the pier, you then get a number of people from the various utility companies who sit down and do more intensive one-to-one interviews with the start-ups. There will then be more discussion between the representatives of the utility companies, who will try to further whittle down to the best 15 proposals. All 15 will then be given a contract to help them develop whatever idea they’ve come up with and try to prove its case and, potentially, bring it to the market – to the benefit of ESB and the other utility companies.

It’s an enviable opportunity to get new ideas in front of not only companies which can use them but companies with an enormous combined customer base. “The seven utilities that are involved in this have a combined customer base of more than 80 million people” said Phelan.

“And, for example, there are two Irish companies in the mix this year and both of them are working on energy efficiency and decarbonisation. If they get a contract and they do well, effectively, they could be bringing a product or a solution to some percentage of 80 million people and, not only that, those 80-million people, or whatever percentage of them, would be getting the energy-saving benefits of that idea.”

The ideas that come from the Free Electrons programme are both big and small. For instance, one idea was to produce a digital twin of the ESB’s massive and complicated Turlough Hill complex. That’s the one that pumps water between two reservoirs at Lough Nahanagan, in Wicklow. The water is pumped up to a high storage reservoir at night, when electricity demand is low and the cost is cheap and then allowed to flow down again during the day, driving a turbine, to generate electricity at high-demand times.

By producing a digital twin, the ESB was able to accurately identify weak points in the pumping and plumbing architecture, the points that would need maintenance earliest. In doing so, weeks worth of time and money, and the need to bring in expensive X-ray equipment, was saved and it meant less maintenance down time for the power station. All of which goes, eventually, to benefit electricity customers as it’s yet another cost that doesn’t have to be passed on.

At the other end of the scale, the ESB doesn’t have a clear idea of where all the ends of its network are. That may sound odd but the last few metres of each power connection makes for a jumbled mass of wiring and not all of it has been digitised. There are maps which can be consulted but that’s time-consuming.

Rather than go out and spend weeks and lots of money mapping everything by hand, one of the Free Electrons applicants realised that smart electricity metres could be used to remotely map these dispersed network-ends, as the smart meters can monitor the low-voltage flow along the cables, creating a virtual map with minimal effort. And, once you have a sharper picture of the entire network, straight away, you’re into saving money when work needs doing.

There are other, even more far-sighted, ideas coming from the programme. “So, one of the things that we’re looking at from last year that we are co-funding with the other utility partners is a reversible hydrogen fuel cell,” says Phelan. “The efficiency levels being quoted by the developers here would be massively higher than anything that’s currently on the market. Now, in that case, that’s a game changer for the entire industry, worldwide.”

Fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity and water vapour is their only emission, which can be recycled back into more hydrogen. Technology like that could put a real dent in people’s bills.