It’s one of those unsolvable problems – a Catch 22
We want our electric cars, our underfloor heating, our iPhones and our iPads, and all the other electrical gadgetry – but in order to work they all need power.
Recently, Texas has felt the full brunt of this problem. After the big freeze in February caused significant problems for its grid, it became apparent that Texans would have to cut back on their electricity at a time when there have never been so many electrical devices they “need” to plug in.
This might shock you, but parts of the US electrical grid are over a hundred years old!
Seventy percent of the grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are over 25-years old, and the average age of the power plants is over 30-years old. But, our electricity needs are more sophisticated and the strain on the grid is higher than ever.
We are constantly being told that clean power is the way to go. The US aims to phase out new internal combustion-engine cars within the next 20-years and will be replaced with electric vehicles (or EVs as they are known).
As anyone with an electric vehicle will know, charging away from home is a hit and miss affair right now. Traveling long distances is only viable on well-established routes between major cities and hubs.
There are not enough charging stations for the existing 1.4 million plug-in electric vehicles that have been sold since they came into the market in 2010. There are still around 282 million internal-combustion engine (i.e., diesel and petrol-driven) vehicles to be replaced.
Just imagine the scale of the task, the cost, and the amount of raw material needed.
To understand this, one must separate the grid – the thing that carries the electricity from place to place – from the power generator – the solar panel, the wind farm, the nuclear power station, or the hydroelectric dam.
The grid cannot store electricity so it uses what is in it at that moment. Unfortunately, this is not consistent.
Less electricity is used at night than it is during the day. At the moment, there is no way of storing night-time spare capacity to boost the needs during the day.
The world is going to have to look at new ways of “smart distribution” of electricity.
This is another difficulty. As a recent article in The Economist highlighted, “Without regulation, crypto mining in China could consume as much energy as Italy does now by 2024.”
But the dilemma remains the same: the environment requires more and more power to push blockchain growth – which has the potential to solve major distribution issues but also requires more power.
In 2017, the US Department of Energy issued a request for blockchain-based pilot and demonstration projects for fossil-fuel-based energy systems.
The call is for public, open, and tamper-proof architectures that will result in important security and reliability improvements. The department vigorously promoted looking into the use of embedded intelligence and real-time data from smart devices in industrial IoT applications.
There are hundreds of highly specialized companies looking into the problems.
One of them, Intrinsic ID, can authenticate and encrypt IoT components on a semiconductor level, resulting in hardware protection and traceability. They have applied their technology solution to electricity smart metering systems in collaboration with Guardtime. The solution uses trusted and accurate input data to represent real energy production and consumption, which is then stored in distributed ledgers.
To succeed in services and applications, blockchains must address performance and scalability challenges. Furthermore, tracking and documenting each individual device’s energy use can be seen as invasive and raise privacy concerns.
As a result, new standards will need to be introduced to achieve smart device and automation interoperability, and avoid hacking and protect individual users' privacy.
A significant number of organizations have looked at blockchain technology for use in electric vehicle applications.
This use of blockchains in electric vehicles and e-mobility is a natural fit. The decentralized nature of transportation involves several parties (vehicles, drivers, charging stations, and passengers using on-demand mobility services like Uber or Lyft) and lends itself to blockchain implementations naturally.
In this case, decentralization offers the following benefits: no need for a centrally operated EV charging system, fault tolerance, and the avoidance of price-fixing and collusion between charging stations or transportation providers.
However, blockchains will have to address significant privacy and security issues in this application as well.
Blockchain solutions aim to incentivize the development of privately built electric vehicle charging infrastructure. EV owners will achieve greater transparency in energy charges and potentially more choice in their energy supply with a blockchain-enabled solution.
Furthermore, blockchains have an advantage over other solutions. They have a specific authentication and communication mechanism that can be used in a variety of settings, including cross-border travel.
For network operators, blockchain systems have a market-based approach that companies can use to improve EV charging management and coordination.
Alliander is testing dynamic consumer contracts for EV charging agreements in the Netherlands. Smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain are used to make contractual agreements with customers. Their blockchain solution aims to allow EV owners to select and pay their preferred energy supplier at any charging station while also providing transparency on energy prices and contract terms.
Car eWallet, based in Germany, has created a blockchain transaction network that connects vehicles and infrastructure with a variety of mobility services, such as car charging from various energy suppliers and charging stations, parking, car-sharing, and car rental. Using a shared ledger based on Hyperledger technology, Car eWallet eliminates the need for a central trusted authority. Payments may be handled automatically or manually, depending on the preferences of the customer.
PROSUME has developed a decentralized EV management and data collection platform.
Energo Labs is working on EV charging stations to allow for automatic EV charging and payments via digital wallets powered by blockchain technology.
Everty, an Australian startup, has developed an EV charging network that can be used for private, semi-public, or public EV charging infrastructure. Drivers can charge their electric vehicles at home, at commercial charging stations, or public charging stations, and they have complete control over their own stations and charges.
Power Ledger is also developing E-mobility applications.
The potential for blockchain innovation in e-mobility applications is essential, but there are some obstacles to overcome.
Since blockchains are public ledgers, by definition, information about EV users' daily location and movement will need to be anonymized to protect their privacy. To prevent malicious actors from jeopardizing electric vehicles’ protection, blockchains in e-mobility networks will have to be tamper-proof.
Finally, since electric vehicles can communicate with the power grid and charge in various locations, developers of these technologies must establish interoperability standards to reap the benefits that blockchains can provide in this space.
As we have seen, blockchain or distributed ledger technology will clearly support the processes, markets, and users of a revamped energy system.
Blockchains provide disintermediation, accountability, and tamper-proof transactions, but they also offer innovative ways for customers and small renewable generators to participate more actively in the energy market and benefit from their properties.
Since blockchains have allowed sharing-economy applications in the energy sector, several specialists in the area have spoken about developing novel business models and energy democratization.
In the energy market, several academic and commercial entities are actively seeking blockchain innovation. Since blockchains are a rapidly evolving field of research and development, a study of this emerging technology is necessary to enhance understanding, educate the body of information on blockchains, and realize their potential.
DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) in the energy sector will be massive.
Blockchain technologies' fundamentals, including system architectures and distributed consensus algorithms, are critical components of this ecosystem’s efficiency.
The advantages and challenges that blockchain technologies face in each application are being thoroughly researched by thousands of the most innovative people on the planet.
They are exploring a wide variety of blockchain operations, highlighting the specific areas where energy system stakeholders and industrial parties are seeking innovation.
Most projects are still in the early stages of growth, and research on key areas for improvement that would allow for desired scalability, decentralization, and security is still ongoing.
For energy firms, blockchain technology can be disruptive, and they face a range of obstacles to market penetration, including competitive, regulatory, and legal barriers.
Additional studies, experiments, ventures, and partnerships can determine if the technology will achieve its full potential, prove its commercial feasibility, and eventually be accepted into the mainstream.
One thing is sure - unless we get to grips with these problems - any electrically powered device will grind to a halt without electricity!