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Blockchain in the energy sector: Institutional disruption?

03 July 2017 by Dr. Marius Buchmann
Blockchain in the energy sector: Institutional disruption?

Blockchain & Energy: The discussion is heating up

This post is about one of the hottest topics in energy business, the

blockchain. While there are many discussions already going on about the

technological dimension and business cases based on the new technology,

we –as usual – will focus on the institutional side again. Importantly,

we intend to sketch a first general picture of the potential

institutional implications of the blockchain technology in the energy

sector, thereby keeping in mind that the full potential, applicability

and success of this new technology is still uncertain.

On 14th February 2017 energy and blockchain experts met in Vienna on the Event Horizon 2017  to

discuss the potential of the blockchain technology for the energy

sector. The general idea behind such events like the one in Vienna seems

to be very compelling: Can we apply a decentralized ledger technology

like the blockchain to a system that currently develops towards an

increasingly decentralized structure (due to the diffusion of renewable

electricity supply and new applications on the demand side, like

electric vehicles), like the electricity system? Today, blockchain is a

niche topic in energy business, with less than 2% of all startups

that focus on blockchain technology targeting specifically the energy

sector. However, the incumbent energy business becomes aware that

blockchain is an important topic with huge potential.

Now, if we

take a look at the debate on the Event Horizon, we see very passionate

people from different startups and a lot of enthusiasm. This is because

the blockchain is based on a very good selling idea: At low costs, it

uses a transparent distributed system that is based on democratic

processes and replaces less transparent intermediate services. These

three components (cost saving, transparency and democratic decision

making) are very compelling and are, at least from our point of view,

the main reason why blockchain gains some much audience at the moment.

Still, blockchain is in its infancy, with many obstacles to overcome

(for a more details see this post). Especially on the technical side, the blockchain technology has yet to prove that it can meet the (very high) expectations. Yli-Huumo et al. (2016) give a nice overview of the current challenges for the blockchain technology:

 

  • Throughput: Bitcoin network is currently maximized to 7tps (transactions per second). VISA (2,000 up to 48,000 tps) and Twitter (5,000tps)
  • Latency: To create sufficient security for a Bitcoin transaction block, it takes currently roughly 10 minutes to complete one transaction.
  • Size and bandwidth: size of a BitCoin Blockchain is over 50,000MB (February 2016). When the throughput increases to the levels of VISA, Blockchain could grow 214PB each year.
  • Security: The current Blockchain has a possibility of a 51% attack. In a 51% attack a single entity would have full control of the majority of the network’s mining hash-rate and would be able to manipulate Blockchain.
  • Wasted resources: Mining Bitcoin wastes huge amounts of energy ($15million/day).
  • Usability: The Bitcoin API for developing services is difficult to use. There is a need to develop a more developer-friendly API for Blockchain.
  • Versioning, hard forks, multiple chains: A small chain that consists of a small number of nodes has a higher possibility of a 51% attack. Another issue emerges when chains are split for administrative or versioning purposes.

 

From our perspective, especially the energy intensity is very interesting. Croman et al. (2016)  calculated

for BitCoin that the energy costs related to each transaction add up to

6.2$, given the current design of BitCoin (1 MB per block, latency of

10 minutes). For the future, Croman et al. (2016) project that these

costs could be cut by 80% with larger block size (4 MB) and higher

latency (12 seconds).

So at this point, we can conclude that the blockchain is a promising technology, but far from being ready for the mass market.

The Blockchain: A brief introduction

In a nutshell, the blockchain is a distributed, digital peer-to-peer

register, which stores every transaction between two connected agents in

a ledger. This ledger is distributed globally on all connected nodes.

This distributed data set consists of a collection of historic data

about all transactions made. Each transaction is added to the dataset as

a new block (in a linear and chronological order), which results in a

full record of all transactions made between two parties. As each

connected note carries the same data set, algorithms can be used on each

computer to verify transactions. If you want to know more about the

technical details you can take a deep dive here.

Currently, many different blockchains pop up. Basically, we can differentiate these chains using two criteria:

 

  1. Supervision and control: Is there an institution that controls the blockchain (e.g. decides who joins a blockchain, can delete or alter the data set in the ledger)?
  2. Visibility: Either a blockchain is public and thereby visible for everyone or private and therefore only visible to the members of the blockchain.

 

Today, most blockchains are public permissionless ledgers, i.e. there is no central supervision of

the ledger and the responsibility to manage the system is with its

users. With permissionless blockchains, everyone can connect to the

blockchain and use it for transactions.

Figure 1: The difference between private and public blockchains

 

 

The public blockchain uses a public and distributed ledger to verify

transactions. If there needs to be an adaptation of the public

blockchain, this requires in most cases consensus (or at least majority)

decisions by all users. On the other hand, one institution or a group

of institutions supervises a private and commissioned blockchain. Access

to the private blockchain is restricted, verification is based on the

private blockchain and the hosting institution is responsible for the

management of the blockchain ledger. Figure 2 gives a first overview of

prominent examples for permission and permissionless public and private

blockchains. Obviously, a permissionless private blockchain is a

theoretical construct. So far, this approach has not been used in the

real world.

Figure 2: Some examples for permissioned and permissionless / public and private blockchains

 

 

The blockchain might change or even disrupt many sectors as it challenges the business case of intermediaries. Merz (2016)

here refers to “disintermediation”. So far, many business models are

based on the fact that two parties that want to execute a transaction do

not have enough information about each other to process the

transaction.

In different markets, disintermediation has been an

issue for retailers due to new digital platform providers, e.g. amazon,

Uber and AirBnB (Merz 2016).

Now, the blockchain technology offers the potential to substitute

service of intermediates in more than just the retail business.

What’s in it for the energy sector

Expectations are that private as well as public blockchains can significantly alter

the electricity sector if the underlying blockchain technology proves

successful. In Burger et al.  (2016),

experts from the incumbent energy business identify the largest

potential of the blockchain in retail business. Especially Peer-2-Peer

trading offers an interesting potential for the electricity sector.

 

The Brooklyn MicroGrid project by LO3 Inc. as well as Power Ledger

activities in Australia nicely illustrate the potential of blockchain

for local p2p trade based on the blockchain technology. In these

projects decentralized energy providers (households with PV) sell

locally produced electricity to their neighbours via blockchain. The

combined processing of transactions of physical energy and financial

resources seems to be a very promising application for the blockchain

technology. However, these projects go beyond retail. They show us the

potential of blockchain technology to operate the grid based on a

decentralized ledger technology. If we imagine that most devices that

are connected to the electricity grid have access to the same

blockchain, it seems possible that these devices autonomously coordinate

(e.g. via smart contracts) their electricity production or consumption

not only according to market signals, but to stabilise the distribution

grid. IBM (2015) uses the term “device democracy” to describe the autonomous coordinate between devices via the blockchain.

Given the assumption that the autonomous coordination between the electric

devices actually works (meaning that enough transactions per second are

possible etc.), we can imagine that the blockchain reduces the

complexity related to network operation. For example, the DSO could

operate a (private) permissioned blockchain and all devices that are

connected to the DSOs electricity grids have to use this blockchain to

track transactions. This would give the DSO the power not only to

supervise, but to intervene into the processes in the blockchain in case

of emergencies. If the stability of the grid is challenged (even if

smart contracts are working), the DSO could either use automated

processes to secure grid stability (which he can do in any blockchain,

private or public), or even stronger measures (resets, stop transactions

or “hard fork” i.e. delete all transactions for a certain period).

The institutional implications of the application of blockchain in the energy sector

If the blockchain proves to be applicable in the energy sector, we can

expect this to have significant effects. Obviously, the degree to which

the blockchain might or might not change the energy sector strongly

depends on the specific applications of the blockchain, the regulatory

framework and many other aspects. Due to the early stage in the

development of blockchain technology, it is not possible (at least for

us), to foresee if and how exactly this technology will change the

energy business. Some important changes, however, seem foreseeable.

Blockchain can alter the role model in the energy sector

We identify a significant potential of blockchain to change the role

concept in the electricity sector. Therefore, we speak of institutional

disruption in the title. Some of the existing roles in the electricity

supply chain might become obsolete (Do we still need retailers if all

data is exchanged directly between the electricity producer and the

consumer?), new roles and tasks might evolve and some business cases and

roles might not be affected by blockchain applications at all (Does the

Blockchain change the electricity generation business case?).

How the blockchain could alter the role of retailers

Most prominently, the blockchain technology has the potential to influence

the retail business. The degree to how the blockchain might alter the

retail business can vary significantly. First, retailers could make use

of the blockchain technology to increase the efficiency of their

business by cutting costs. This application of the blockchain would be

comparable to the current developments in the finance sector, where the

incumbent financial institutions apply the blockchain technology to

their established products to reduce costs. While this might offer new

business opportunities in the retail sector, from an institutional

perspective, the blockchain technology would not change much. Rather, we

could expect institutional implications if retail becomes an autonomous

application sold together with generation assets (like PV), storages or

consumption devices. As a consequence, retail business would be

substituted by autonomous smart contracts that are provided together

with generation or consumption devices.

How blockchain could alter the role of (distribution) grid operators

Let’s suppose that network operation is based on smart contracts or other

autonomous processes that secure frequency and voltage control as well

as balancing. These autonomous processes might trigger a discussion

about responsibilities: The higher the degree of automation and the

higher the number of autonomous devices (generation and consumption)

that can provide network services, the lower is the need for

supervision. This might lead to the question how many network operators

are required and whether the responsibility for network stability could

be centralized or even completely decentralized. Such a development

would result in a new “market structure” on the network level with

either a very high concentration (with just one network operator) or a

very fragmented structure with very decentralized network operators

(potentially on the consumer level).

This might in turn require an adaptation of the institutional design as well, e.g. the way we regulate the network operators.

How the blockchain could alter regulation of network operators

Concerning regulation, the blockchain might offer the potential to simplify the process of regulation and increase efficiency. Giancarlo (2016) speaks

of the opportunity for regulators to get access to the golden record,

the real-time ledger(s) of all regulated participants (if the regulated

entities make use of the blockchains and the regulator has access to

them). Then, the regulator would become able to analyse and understand

all processes the regulated entities are involved in.

To apply the idea of the “golden record” to the energy sector could alter

regulation, for example of the distribution grid operators, to a

significant extent. As described above, the network operators could use

(private or public commissioned) blockchains to operate their network.

For all those transaction that are executed via the blockchain, the

regulator could gain full transparency by connecting to the blockchain.

Furthermore, the blockchain could simplify the interaction between the regulator and

the regulated entities. For example, an increased transparency for the

regulator via the blockchain about the DSOs activities could change the

way network operators can manage their grids. Here, current discussions

in Europe focus on the question whether and how the DSO could use

flexibility provided by market parties to increase the feed-in of RES.

From the regulator’s perspective, the network operator’s interaction

with market parties increases the risk of market distortions, at least

as long as network operators are not fully unbundled from the

competitive businesses in generation and retail (CEER 2015).

Such reservations by the regulator are primarily driven by the missing

transparency of company-internal as well as market processes. The

blockchain technology might provide the necessary transparency to the

regulator, which could drive the regulator to allow the DSO to interact

with the market (e.g. based on smart contracts) in the blockchain. Then,

the DSO might be able to more efficiently integrate RES, i.e. at lower

costs than today. Furthermore, less information asymmetry might reduce

the need for further unbundling of DSOs if they want to interact more

closely with market parties.

Takeaways

As discussed above, the introduction of blockchains could trigger some

institutional changes in the electricity sector. These institutional

changes could affect both, the retail and the network sector. We could

move towards a world where generators directly sell electricity to the

customers, which results in a stronger integration of generation and

retail business. Potentially, retail won’t remain an independent part of

the supply chain, but an automated and autonomous process conducted by

the generators and consumers themselves. Furthermore, the “golden

record” idea by Giancarlo (2016a)

provides a basis to reduce information asymmetry between the regulator

and the network operators, potentially leading to more unbundling than

is the status quo.

 

Originally posted here

 


About Dr. Marius Buchmann

Buchmann

Marius has a profound expertise on renewable energies, energy economics, energy regulation, energy markets, smart grids and grid integration of electric mobility. Within several industrial projects, he support companies from the energy sector in the strategic process to adapt to the digital transformation of the energy sector. Furthermore, he is active in the field of business development.


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