Dundalk - energy innovation on a local scale


The signing of the first EU Concerto contract awarded to Ireland in June 2007 saw a part of the Co Louth town of Dundalk become Irelandís first sustainable energy community.

The goal is innovation on a local scale - developing clean energy sources and reducing energy demand in a 1.5-square-mile Sustainable Energy Zone. The project is part of an EU program to encourage pilot projects that can be scaled-up to regional or national levels. Dundalk is working with two other towns - in Austria and Switzerland - said Aideen O'Hora, the project manager for Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI), the government agency in charge. hOWEVER, the biggest changes are taking place in Dundalk.

The zone has a bit of everything — an industrial park, a college campus, a high school, a hospital, a hotel, other businesses and two housing developments — in a town of about 30,000 people. The five-year project will be a year old in June, but other initiatives got a head start and the town of Dundalk is already seeking money for an energy-conscious expansion that could double its size.

Some of the current projects are literally high profile. The first thing a visitor spots is a wind turbine 200 feet high that has dominated the campus of the Dundalk Institute of Technology since 2005. It is the inspiration for an even bigger one that will provide power to Xerox in the industrial park. Self-powered streetlights being tested on the campus and in the industrial park also draw curious looks because their small wind turbines and solar panels make them appear as if they are ready for lift-off.

However, most of the work is less obvious or is in the planning stage. For example, a wood-fuelled system with a gas boiler backup will deliver heat and hot water to many buildings in the zone through underground pipes. In addition, inside the H. J. Heinz plant, clever engineering has put the machinery on an energy diet.

Energy conservation in the zone means improving the insulation for both new and existing homes. SEI says that, by 2010, renewable energy will account for at least 20 percent of the heat in the zone and at least 20 percent of the electricity used by businesses

That timetable looks overly modest to Lawrence D. Staudt, the director of the Center for Renewable Energy at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, who says that Ireland is ideally suited for wind power because of its perch in the northern Atlantic - and he is eager to see it move ahead.

The limiting factor is Ireland's electrical grid, which is being updated. The winds (and wave-power energy potential) are strongest on the western coast, but the country needs some 'big pipes' to carry the power to more populous areas, Mr. Staudt explained. "Ireland will become an exporter of green electrons" - he predicted.

The turbine is the largest commercial wind turbine on a college campus, Mr. Staudt said and it has cut the college's electricity costs in half. It will pay for itself in just over seven years, he added.

The campus center is also studying the self-powered streetlights that are being imported by Horseware - a horse-blanket company in the industrial park. Ciaran Herr, Horseware's purchasing manager, said he brought some of the lights to the Dundalk plant after seeing them in China. However, they have their limits.

"The County Council said they were interested in buying them, but I must guarantee 100 percent light at night" - Mr. Herr said. "I can't do that." If there were four or five short winter days without wind, the solar energy wouldn't be enough and the two small batteries in each streetlight would run dry. Therefore, the lights will be best used in places like parks and remote areas, Mr. Herr said - and a power backup might be added. The plan for the zone calls for streetlights like these to be installed in Dundalk's industrial park.

At Heinz, energy innovation started with recycling and conservation. Then the engineering staff looked for savings in the refrigeration, compressed air and boiler systems. A big chunk of Heinz's electricity bill comes from freezing the dinners, said Shane Kearney, the chief engineer. The system uses compressed ammonia.

"The greater the pressure, the harder it is to pump" - Mr. Kearney said. "We took the pressure down to where the motors didn't have to work so hard. That took 30 percent off the freezing bill in the first year."

Then utilities workers took a critical look at the compressed-air system used to drive machinery and found that fixing leaks quickly made a big difference in costs. "When we plugged the leaks" - Mr. Kearney said - "we could drop the third compressor." In addition, the second compressor, said Micheal McNally, the utilities supervisor, now has to work only part of the time.

There is more work to do. For example, the heat drawn from the refrigeration apparatus could be used to heat water for cleaning - but, the generation of the heat and the cleaning of the plant take place at different times of the day and the storage of warm water could lead to bacterial growth - unacceptable in a food plant. Still, Mr. McNally thinks a way may be found to do it safely.