Hope, hype and heresy as blockchains enter the energy business
TEPCO, Japan’s largest energy firm, is an unlikely advocate of techno-anarchy. The firm is best known for the meltdown at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant in 2011, during which its buttoned-down executives showed corporate Japan at its most stultified. Yet it is trying to reinvent itself as a pioneer of one of the edgiest forms of energy. It is embracing blockchain technology with an aim, no less, of overthrowing the old order in the electricity business to make it more decentralised.
Blockchains, the technologies on which bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are built, may at first appear to be an uneasy fit with the energy business. Electricity has in the past been generated centrally, run across vast physical grids, with constant management by system operators to keep power flowing smoothly. Blockchains are distributed digital ledgers, which are not managed by a central authority, but collectively by a group of users. If anything, cryptocurrency blockchains are a drain on energy rather than a support for it. Digiconomist, a blog, estimates that just one bitcoin transaction uses as much electricity as an average household in the Netherlands uses in a month.
Yet in an era when more businesses, communities and households are generating their own energy, chiefly via solar and wind power, startups and big utilities alike believe blockchains will help speed the move towards decentralisation. They are finding ways to do this with minimal energy consumption.
There is lots of hype and a degree of heresy, given that stodgy utilities are making use of an anti-establishment technology. Almost all blockchain applications are still experimental. But the scope of potential blockchain-energy businesses is so wide that there may be successes to come. The applications range from ways to promote buying, selling or trading of clean energy between individuals (also called peer-to-peer trading), to balancing wholesale electricity markets (ensuring that supply always matches demand), to trading carbon credits. Further uses are enabling households to provide charging stations for electric cars, and funding the development of solar power in poor countries.
Numbers are hazy. The Energy Futures Initiative, a think-tank led by Ernest Moniz, a former American energy secretary, says that $100m-300m has been invested in over 100 blockchain-related energy ventures. Specialists at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an American think-tank, say most investment so far has gone into peer-to-peer trading and grid-balancing applications. A “try-anything” attitude prevails. “It is like looking at cell phones circa 1995 and not knowing what the future of mobile communications will be,” says Sam Hartnett of the Energy Web Foundation (EWF), a non-profit venture aimed at developing core blockchain technology for the energy industry.
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