Blockchain For Utilities: A Reality Check

Gavin Mooney

In recent years, there has been increasing hype around blockchain. Media articles abound as people search for applications for this promising technology. Since January 2017, blockchain has been the number-one search term on CIOs have been under pressure to help guide decisions on whether and how blockchain can be implemented in their enterprises.

To recap:

Blockchains allow mutually mistrusting entities to exchange financial value and interact without relying on a trusted third party.

This article serves as a more cautious update to my 2018 article on blockchain.

Do I really need blockchain?

Here’s the thing: Blockchain may hold great promise, but often the technology is offered as a solution in search of a problem. It may be ten years since the creation of Bitcoin, but we have yet to see many wider applications or broader adoption of the underlying blockchain technology.

There is a very good chance that blockchains are totally inappropriate for whatever problem you’re thinking about solving, especially when the disadvantages are so numerous.

Blockchains do not magically make the data in them accurate or the people entering the data trustworthy; they merely enable you to audit whether it has been tampered with.

Few firms have fully embraced blockchain, according to consultancy Capgemini. In a recent survey of firms looking to use the tech, 3% had large-scale use, 10% were piloting it, while 87% had only tested blockchain proofs of concept.

Do You Need a Blockchain?”, by Karl Wüst and Arthur Gervais, includes a guide for determining whether a blockchain is the appropriate technical solution to solve a problem.

Writers are effectively users. A trusted third party might be an individual, corporation, or government that can be trusted with your data.

Most ideas stop at step two or three of the flowchart, meaning you don’t need a blockchain.

Blockchain in utilities

Despite the technology’s immaturity and challenges, there are some clear opportunities emerging for blockchain in utilities, including several associated pilot projects.

Peer-to-peer energy trading

With the rise of the energy prosumer and the few cents they are paid for energy fed back into the grid, there is increasing interest in energy sharing. Consumers can buy locally produced renewable energy that is likely cheaper than buying from their utility.

Blockchain’s relatively low transaction costs allow smaller energy producers to participate, right down to the individual solar household. Smart contracts facilitate the real-time coordination of production data from solar panels and other installations and execute sales contracts that allow for two-way energy flows throughout the network.

In Australia, current projects include the Decentralized Energy Exchange (deX) from Melbourne-based Greensync, AGL’s Solar Exchange, and LO3’s virtual microgrids in South Australia and the Latrobe Valley.

Balancing supply and demand through real-time transactions

As solar and wind energy scale, energy markets are increasingly challenged to balance supply and demand. There is a desire for flexibility services, which either adjust demand to better match supply or can provide supply at short notice to meet increasing demand.

In Europe, transmission system operator TenneT is continuing with blockchain after two successful pilots last year. Blockchain technology is deployed to temporarily interrupt charging sessions of customers with electric cars and smartly manage household batteries to prevent congestion on the high-voltage grid and keep it in balance.

U.K.-based Electron has developed a flexibility trading platform that can compensate consumers for adjusting their energy consumption. This enables the demand side and consumers to flexibly help balance the networks and integrate increasing levels of renewable generation on the grid.

Electrify undeveloped markets

There are still more than a billion people without access to electricity, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and India. Electrification has tended to be an expensive and cumbersome process involving the installation of power lines, traditional loan structures, and centralized energy authorities.

Lithuanian WePower is using blockchain technology to sell future energy production from planned renewable generation to raise capital. Renewable energy developers can secure easier financing by selling part of their energy production capacity directly to the corporate energy buyers through a “digitally enabled” power purchase agreement (PPA).

Danish M-PAYG provides prepaid solar energy systems to off-grid, low-income households and businesses to access solar energy through small-scale mobile repayments.

In South Africa, Bankymoon provides blockchain-aware meters to schools in need of financial aid so anyone around the world can make payments directly to the meter and fund school’s energy or water needs.

Electric vehicle (EV) charging stations

Blockchain offers opportunities to coordinate EV charging. Blockchain can orchestrate the charging station network autonomously, showing drivers where nearby stations are located and how they are being used. Smart contracts allow for automatic, secure, peer-to-peer energy payments.

In Germany, Share&Charge is a blockchain-based app that offers EV owners a seamless charging experience, connecting cars with available residential and commercial charging stations. It tackles the challenges of a highly fragmented market, overload of power grids, and complex settlement between EV companies.

Renewable energy certificates

Renewable energy certificates (RECs) are currently given to solar producers based on generation estimates and forecasts rather than on actual generation. Inaccuracies could be reduced using sensors paired with smart contracts that record data to a blockchain ledger and issue or trade RECs based on actual energy produced. Blockchain can reduce costs for public agencies administering RECs by streamlining trade verification and data indexing.

In Spain, Acciona has developed technology that allows its clients to access data in real time and offers full transparency over the origin of renewable energy. In Singapore, SP Group has launched a trading platform to allow local companies to engage in REC trading. Volt Markets offers an energy origination, tracking, and trading platform using blockchain to streamline the distribution, tracking, and trading of RECs.

Wrapping up

Blockchain at scale remains three to five years away, but by applying blockchain to their vast stores of data, utilities can unlock new revenue streams from better-coordinated markets, “smarter” hardware, and wider electrification.

Do you have a scenario that could benefit from blockchain? Come and try it out using SAP’s Blockchain-as-a-Service platform, which provides an easy way to experiment with the technology without the need for a large upfront investment.

Gavin Mooney

About Gavin Mooney

Gavin Mooney is a utilities industry solution advisor for SAP. From a background in Engineering and IT, Gavin has been working in the utilities industry with SAP products for 16 years. After working as a consultant with a number of Electricity, Gas and Water Utilities across the globe to implement SAP’s Industry Solution for Utilities, Gavin joined SAP in 2014. He now works with utilities across Australia and New Zealand to help them simplify, innovate and run better with SAP's latest products. Gavin loves to network and build lasting business relationships and is passionate about cleantech and the fundamental transformation currently shaking up the utilities industry.