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Startups across Europe are fighting fuel poverty

On Christmas morning last year, dozens of households in the Republic of Ireland woke up to a hot water tank that had been heated overnight – free of charge.

These households were part of a pilot by the pioneers social enterprise EnergyCloudwhich has found a way to use excess wind energy on stormy nights to help people experiencing fuel poverty.

All that is required is the installation of a special switch that allows EnergyCloud to activate water heating when there is abundant energy on the grid. People can still heat their hot water tank via a manual switch whenever they want and they can also turn off the entire system if they are away from home for a while.

“We can send a message remotely that clicks on your hot water and heats your immersion overnight,” explains Derek Roddy, co-founder of EnergyCloud. He adds that free water heating was provided several times last year, not just on Christmas morning.

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Energy prices in Europe increased enormously in the last few years, due to shifts in demand during the pandemic and, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This has been activated a worrying increase in fuel poverty but efforts are being made to help. Renewable energy sources in particular can offer a solution.

EnergyCloud is a non-profit social enterprise with a voluntary board of 11 people. Funds and technologies are donated by EnergyCloud partners, including Roddy’s firm Climote, energy provider SSE Airtricity, and Amazon Web Services.

People who receive free hot water will receive a text message to let them know when it is available. “It makes a difference in people’s lives,” adds Roddy.

Hot water tanks, he says, could be reimagined as batteries: “A typical hot water tank would store 6 kWh of energy in hot water, which is a staggering amount of energy.” If you were to add up all the hot water tanks in Ireland, you would get a total of about 6 GWh.

Costs the surplus

Excess energy from wind farms is an increasingly expensive problem. In 2022, the UK National Grid paid £215 million to shut down wind generation when the electricity was not needed – a cost that is passed on to the consumer, further driving prices up. EnergyCloud has found a way to use excess energy while helping people who are struggling to pay their energy bills.

In principle, everyone benefits from this – not least because a lack of heating and hot water can cause or exacerbate health problems. The British Building Research Establishment estimates that cold houses, in England alone, cost the National Health Service more than half a billion pounds a year.

Other initiatives to help households that have historically struggled with fuel poverty have included a program being installed in Scotland Tesla Powerwall batteries in more than 100 homesthough Roddy notes the cost is minimal if you can instead divert energy to existing hot water tanks.

EnergyCloud says it aims to install its remote hot water tank switches in at least 10,000 homes by the end of the year, and the venture 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 around energy use. However, she notes that some people may be hesitant to allow remote-controlled equipment to be installed in their homes. Until now, this has not been an obstacle for EnergyCloud. All participants were voluntary, and Roddy says an additional 65,000 homes have already expressed interest in participating.

A ‘public good’

Smith argues that emerging energy companies are increasingly presenting renewables (and excess electricity) as a potential “public good”. Other European companies have tried to help low-income households around the world gain direct access to renewable energy. To take Triangle, a 16-person company based in Sweden that empowers people to invest in solar energy projects in Africa, Asia and Central America. To date, more than €80 million has been raised through the platform.

“There’s plenty of technology out there – batteries, panels, inverters,” said Trine founder Christoffer Falsen. “It’s really about being able to accelerate that with the injection of capital.”

He explains that Trine-funded schemes could, for example, enable a household in Kenya to purchase a solar panel in installments, giving them access to cheaper electricity and moving away from fossil fuel generators, which extremely common in much of Africa. To date, nearly 3 million people worldwide have access to electricity from renewable sources funded by Trine’s investors.

While previously “unthinkable,” Falsen says Trine will soon enable investors to support renewable energy projects in Europe as well: The rise in energy prices on the continent means greater profitability of energy projects, so potential returns have also increased. Previously, European companies were not attractive enough in this respect.

“I think there will be a greater push for energy independence and that will, I think, be very good for this whole industry,” says Falsen. However, he notes that there are doubts about whether high energy rates in Europe will continue, adding to investor uncertainty.

Electricity at cost price

Europe’s growing cadre of “energy communities” – groups of households buying into generation projects such as small-scale wind farms – already understand that energy independence can protect people from the highest bills.

A long-running example is the community in Eeklo, Belgium, which benefits from wind energy harnessed by EcoPower. It supplies power 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, several thousand of whom live in Eeklo. The company has a workforce of about 50 people, operates a total of 20 wind farms in Flanders and has so far raised 60 million euros in capital invested by citizens.

“People don’t join EcoPower because they want to earn a lot of money and have a high dividend, but they want access to locally produced energy at a fair price,” says de Pauw.

The benefits have become apparent over the past 12 months as energy bills in Europe have skyrocketed. EcoPower estimates that its members have saved about €700 on their total bill for 2022. To join, households must buy a single share for €250, but people living in fuel poverty can pay it off in small installments of just €3. 50 a month for six years.

Similar schemes are thriving across Europe, including Ripple Energy in the UK.

With more and more renewable generation on the continent, expect to see increasing opportunities for sharing or cheaply distributing energy in the forms described above.

All of this could have other implications, besides helping low-income or fuel-poor households. Roddy says that as soon as EnergyCloud pilot participants learned their free hot water would come from local wind farms, they expressed a glowing acceptance of renewable energy. (TNW asked to speak to a participant, but was told none were coming.)

Large, white and pointy turbines on the mainland have been described by some as an eyesore. But schemes like EnergyCloud, which highlight the potential financial benefits of renewables, could change attitudes, Roddy argues.

“People understood this right away. This wasn’t a hard sell,” he says. “I think people will literally approach their elected representatives and insist that wind farms and solar farms are being built in their area.”


Shreya has been with australiabusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider australiabusinessblog.com, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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