This Twitter bot showcases Ireland’s role as a leader in renewable energy

While others were perfecting sourdough bread recipes under pandemic lockdown, one couple created a useful energy tracking tool.

An illustration showing the words Friday Social in neon surrounded by social media avatars and emojis

Supported by

  • Link copied to clipboard

If you’re like me, when you hear the term Twitter bot,” your mind jumps to nefarious subjects like election interference and astroturfing. Well, I’m here today to tell you that not all bots are bad.

Let me introduce you to Twitter’s IrishEnergyBot. It’s a good bot.

It’s also a product of the pandemic.

If you confine an energy analyst and a software engineer to their home for months at a time (they’re married), would you expect anything other than an energy-data-scraping Twitter bot to be the result?

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

Curious to learn more about their project, I met with the bot’s creators, Fei Wang and Trevor Johnston, over video chat last week.

It was definitely a pandemic project,” confirmed Wang, who was most recently a grid edge analyst with Wood Mackenzie, where she was a colleague of mine.

Before the pandemic, I remember occasionally on Twitter you’d see a post like, Ireland used 50% wind power yesterday,’” said Trevor Johnston, who worked as a Google software engineer for more than a decade. This would come up every so often, and I’d register, That’s cool.’”

Wang and Johnston had noticed that the BBC would occasionally report on coal-free days in the U.K., that is, days when enough wind power was generated to allow the country to temporarily halt burning coal. They knew Ireland was having similar successes, but they felt not enough people were talking about it.

Johnston, who was born and raised in Ireland, wants to help put the Emerald Isle on more people’s radar as a leading nation in the global race to decarbonize.

And rightly so. The country ranks second overall when it comes to share of electricity generated by wind power, behind only Denmark. 

Johnston and Wang knew the story they wanted to tell. Now they needed the data and the right communication channel.

Johnston went searching for data on electricity generated by wind power and realized that EirGrid, Ireland’s grid operator, does have a public dashboard, but he thought the information could be presented in a way that was a lot more accessible — and he wanted to bring it to a wider audience.

Enter Twitter

Johnston said he drew inspiration from a Twitter bot called The Grand Auld Stretch. In Ireland, the expression grand stretch” refers to the time after the winter solstice when the days gradually get longer and longer. It’s a big deal in Ireland when the sun sets at 3:50 p.m.,” Johnston joked. Each day, the bot reports how many more minutes of sunlight the folks of Ireland will get to enjoy.

Wang was also inspired by a bot — perhaps one more familiar to those on stateside #energytwitter — called the Hourly Energy Bot, which randomly plucks data from various balancing authorities across the U.S. power grid and tweets out the fuels that make up their energy mix using emojis.

I’ve always liked those tweets but felt like it could have been better presented because there are so many balancing authorities and it’s hard to spot a trend,” Wang said.

Building IrishEnergyBot

It was more challenging than I thought,” said Johnston about creating the bot. Of course, nobody has ever built anything and said, It was easier than I thought.’”

EirGrid dashboards have an open data license, so you can use it with proper attribution,” he noted. But there is no API [application programming interface], so it’s not amenable to scraping.”

He connected the data to a Google BigQuery table, and then a lot of trial and error ensued. But eventually, he and Wang were able to get the data where it needed to be: on Twitter.

I’ve been an analyst for a long time — data is a really big issue,” Wang says. A lot of it’s available, but the challenge is usually in compiling, analyzing and telling a story with the data. That’s the fun part for me.”

One storytelling challenge the couple came up against was Twitter’s 280-character limit. After talking through it with some friends, they landed on a succinct, repeatable tweet format:

Gaining traction

But even if you’re posting great content from your Twitter account, it can be hard to grow a following.

For the first 12 months or so, it was mostly us forcing our friends and family to follow,” said Wang. However, we noticed toward the end of November [2021] that it doubled from 300 to 600 in a single day.”

There were some very windy days then, so you had days where the renewable generation was like 75% wind energy,” Johnston added.

Around that same time, the Republic of Ireland was also putting together a national carbon budget, and clean energy was a big topic of conversation on national radio shows. Wang noticed that a guest on one of Ireland’s popular morning shows used a data point that the bot had recently tweeted, and she hadn’t seen it published anywhere else. She posits that he came across that stat from the couple’s tool on Twitter.

Then there’s Carlow Weather, an account with 50,000 followers run by an amateur meteorologist who often retweets Johnston and Fei’s bot. Talk about a country obsessed with the weather,” Johnston quipped. 

Last month was an incredible month for wind power in Ireland. It was also a good month for IrishEnergyBot.

February 2022 is the highest month yet in terms of how much demand is satisfied by renewables.” Wang said. What was it, 60 percent?” Johnston asked. No, 59 percent,” Wang, the former energy analyst, replied with a smile. We have to be accurate here.”

Something different: Solar Parks and Recreation

Speaking of my former colleagues’ Twitter exploits, I’d like to give a shoutout to Dan Finn-Foley, principal consultant at PA Consulting, for one of the best #energytwitter threads of the year so far. To enjoy it to its full potential, you have to have some understanding of both the sitcom Parks and Recreation and clean energy policy. As one Twitter user points out, the thread is “[i]ncredibly funny for the 35 humans who will understand both elements.”

That Venn diagram overlap must be bigger than he thought, however, as the Twitter thread has already amassed over 300 retweets and quote tweets.

Please enjoy the thread below and give Dan Finn-Foley a follow. And if you’re still unsure whether you should follow him, see his past viral tweet thread imagining each of the 2019 Democratic primary challengers as electricity-generation technologies.

***
Silverline Communications, the supporter of this column, is a climatetech and ESG communications firm with deep experience in all facets of the clean economy. Learn more about how Silverline connects clients with stakeholders on social channels and beyond.

Mike Munsell is director of growth at Canary Media.