Representing Ireland in the Red Bull Basement Global Final in December, UCD Engineering Graduates Ben Ralph and Tadgh Crowley spoke to Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell about their app, ambitions and Red Bull Basement final.
DemRes, an amalgamation of the words Demand-Response, is an app thought-up by UCD Mechanical Engineering graduates Ben Ralph and Tadgh Crowley. Yielding from Bray, Co. Wicklow and Clonakilty, Co. Cork respectively, the pair have been selected to represent Ireland in the Red Bull Basement Global Final.
The app is designed to give power back to the consumer by allowing the user to switch on smart devices and appliances connected to smart plugs when there is peak renewable electricity on the grid, and prices are cheaper. This not only allows the consumer to access the cheapest rate of electricity for tasks such as using a dishwasher or charging a laptop but also to deliberately use renewable energy; “For years generators all over Ireland [have been] generating electricity and [these] generators have to put out a power-output that matches the demand constantly. If we don’t match the demand crazy stuff happens... It would cause a massive blackout” Crowley explains. “The demand controls how much power these power plants were generating. DemRes gives control back to the individuals, back to us. We get to choose when we put on our electricity and we get to help balance out the load, instead of it always being given to the power generator side... What DemRes tackles is [that] we look at when there is going to be peak renewable [energy] on the grid and we have an app that connects with your devices in the house. We’ll be able to tap into your devices at home, your smart plugs, your dishwashers, anything that's smart, and turn them on when there is this peak renewable generation and when electricity is cheapest”.
“Basically - we’re going into the future now - our generation will be based on renewables like wind and solar” Ralph continues. “You don’t have any control over those. They can be intermittent, the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun isn’t always there. Also, there’s no massive storage available yet to take in energy whenever it’s abundant and to return it back to the grid whenever renewables aren’t there. If you have a device or an app like DemRes that will automatically turn on devices during the day whenever the demand is there, you override the need for any storage. It’s a very important thing, otherwise, there’s no use for renewables because you don’t use them”.
“You have to export them a lot of the time. We’re over-generating” Crowley concurs. “There’s a HVDC cable that goes from Ireland to the UK and there's electricity being constantly moved across that, from the UK to here and from here to the UK. There are plans to do one between France and Ireland as well now to combat Brexit... Other than that, when renewables [are] being over-generated the energy is just kind of wasted. Whereas with DemRes you can monitor it”. Crowley spoke about the potential their app could have when linked with new technologies which are beginning to appear; “there is new technology being brought into homes. You have Tesla power banks and other variations that are these kinds of wall batteries that you store in your house... Say renewables are at peak generation, and electricity is super cheap, why not just charge your electric car then to save you money. The same with that when you have these power banks at your house. When the electricity is cheap, why don’t we just charge then. That’s what DemRes is focussing on - being able to focus the electricity onto all these things when the renewable generation is at its highest”.
“It’s for appliances that are kind of flexible, that it doesn’t matter when you turn them on during the idea [like] your dishwasher” Ralph continues. “You could pack that in the morning and then you basically say to the app ‘I want this to go on at some point during the day’ so that whenever it sees renewables it will turn on. If renewables don’t get to a sufficient level, it will turn on anyway, when .. the electricity is cheapest... No matter what, it will turn on and it will power to be most advantageous to you, both economically and environmentally”.
Crowley and Ralph recognised that the app is a project for the future. Electricity rates in Ireland are static, and a basic rate is prescribed to consumers. However, there are some trials for varied rates taking place at the moment, and so the pair don’t feel it is an unrealistic aim to work with. “Basically, if you pay a certain amount of money per kilowatt of electricity, there are some places in Dublin and maybe in the other major cities as well where you can have a rate that changes to three different rates per day, like a night rate, and they’re trailing real-time pricing” Crowley explains. “DemRes would come into it then because the prices, like the stock exchange, would be constantly changing for electricity and you would want to be able to see when it’s at its lowest and when its at its highest and do basic things like charge your laptop, turn on your space heaters, all that stuff at home.. when it’s at its lowest value”. “Generally, whenever people who own houses think about DemRes [they think] there’s a standard rate of electricity. But [the] smart meters coming around the country - that’s what we need... we will build on top of Smart Meters. You need that real-time data and electricity” Ralph added. Simply put by Crowley, “we’re taking the real-time data and trying to optimize it”.
However, the pair were not oblivious to other hurdles that could arise. “There’s something blocked when it comes to your oven” Ralph explains, “you can’t override the settings you have to put into it. You can’t turn the dial to 180 through an app. There are certain devices it doesn’t work on properly yet”. “Another good example of that is, let’s say, we have a Toshiba Smart washing machine" Crowley adds. "To be able to have contact with that you would have to have some sort of contact with the company to get the permission to use the codes that allows our interface to work with their interface. It’s something we have to look into yet. Smart plugs at the moment are fairly customizable, you can work with them easily enough with app software, it’s those devices we’re not sure about at the moment”. Both then launched into a funny anecdote about the Tesco air conditioning system being hacked and money subsequently stolen from the Clubcard scheme - “through their air conditioning!” Ralph exclaimed. “So there are things like that we have to look out for and keep in mind” Crowley laughed.
“At the moment though, DemRes is a concept and we’re working on it for the RedBull Global Final. We’re both flat out at the minute [with college]... We’re just trying to brainstorm. The idea is there and we see it to be a fairly good one” Crowley says. “I’m prototyping the app at the moment, wire-framing it. We have an AWS cloud product architecture that we’re hoping to use if we do develop it in the end. We have everything in the background ready to be programmed, it just has to go to a developer” Ralph explained.
The Red Bull Basement Global Final has launched the DemRes app from an idea to something palpable. “It is a platform for student innovators to collaborate on things together” Ralph explained. “Red Bull put us in touch with NTT [to] help us with any programming. There is also Huawei and HONOR, other Tech brands, so they’re helping us develop the app. So generally you have your own mentors. At the Global Finale in December there are experts and tech leaders who will give keynote speeches, so that will be cool. And generally, we just get to network with people from around the world”. “And get DemRes on a global stage” Crowley added. “You never get an opportunity like this where you get an idea that comes from the James Joyce Library and a [shared] GoogleDoc shown on a global stage. We get to show people from... all [over] the world, potential investors [and] visionaries DemRes and we get to show them in the best way possible through presentation. You just don’t know where it could go after that, once the idea is put out there. It will just be a fantastic opportunity, even to represent Ireland. It’s crazy... Even just to be selected is a massive honour and the potential of our idea seen... is amazing, really, really surreal”.
As part of the competition, the app should have a student-centric aim intertwined; “We’re hoping that we could gamify it” Ralph says. “You would compete against friends and family to reduce your carbon footprint as much as you can. Then we would have local businesses on the side, like a noodle bar, and they would give discounts if you get to a certain level of carbon [reduction]. So by putting a social spin on it, it incentivises people, students, to get more involved”.
“I think it would be a social movement as well” Ralph continues. “You see people out on the streets and they’re happy to go out and protest against climate change and Trump but apart from striking there’s not much tangible difference you can make. But, if you have this you can actually change when energy is being used and save megatons of CO2 every year”. “Yeah like everyone’s accumulative efforts, we could save megatons” Crowley seconds. “Through the app, you will be able to monitor your progress so you would be able to see the difference you’ve made”.
The conversation with Crowley and Ralph flowed easily, and their enthusiasm and excitement was infectious. Crowley is now pursuing a Masters of Engineering in Energy Systems in UCD and Ralph is studying a Masters of Science in Sustainable Energy Technology at TU Delft in the Netherlands. I asked them, ‘What’s the dream’; “I want to work on it together first, develop and see how far we can get with it. I really want to develop it as much as we can first” Ralph responded. “Same, I’m really excited”, Crowley said. “Out of all the misery that is college at the moment it’s the only fun thing that’s actually happening. Me and Ben met on the first day of college, we were in the same Peer Mentor group and we became buddies... The reason we did Energy in the end, it’s not about the big bucks, it’s about making an impact. We selected this stream (I still have a bit of fossil fuels, Ben’s completely green) that we’re doing to make an impact. We grew up with 'An Inconvenient Truth' and the Paris Climate Agreement and Extinction Rebellion. All these things have had a massive impact on us and we want to be able to make a difference and leave a planet at the end of the day that our kids and kids’ kids can live on. I suppose it’s clichéd but there’s a drive there to make a difference, and we believe that DemRes is somewhere where we could go with that”.