Blockchain will be the “glue” linking the future electricity grid
Once upon a time, a single electric utility sent electricity in one direction to many customers. But the network is evolving so that millions of devices instantly buy and sell, trade and share electricity, system services and information in a multitude of directions.
US energy labs have started developing systems that use blockchain to manage these transactions.
“We have a really exciting opportunity here,” said Tony Markel, a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “We see the power grid going through a pretty interesting transition, this whole industry going from having a lot of things to control from a central point of view, moving, having a lot of distributed energy resources and having a lot of – having millions to billion devices sitting there on the power grid.
“And we’re going to be in a state where we don’t know what all these things are doing. They can all have different purposes. And, so, I think the direction that we’re going in trying to understand blockchain and building the knowledge base around blockchain is seeing that future state and knowing that we need a way to develop and ensure trust throughout this very complex, highly distributed environment.”
Trust is the key word. Blockchain is often associated with cryptocurrencies these days, which rely on the technology’s ability to trust, or at least transparency. The future grid will require a reliable hyper ledger that is transparent to multiple parties.
“Blockchain…is a distributed digital record of actions agreed upon and executed by multiple parties,” said Pete Tseronis, the moderator of a NREL Panel on the future of blockchain for energy systems. “Don’t confuse it with the whole crypto stuff yet, folks. But it provides mathematical proof of the state of data, and it’s usually associated with cryptocurrencies, but cryptography and consensus mechanisms underpin that. Ultimately, it’s to build a relationship of trust.
Southern California Edison is among the utilities closely monitoring government experiments with blockchain as their section of the network changes.
“We see a lot more complexity, a lot more devices. In fact, it’s kind of a blast, if you really think about it,” said Anthony James, data scientist and senior engineer at SCE. “Inverters, electric vehicles, connected buildings, data is going to be used a lot more, moving from static domains to more real-time applications. And, so, there seems to be a very good, very strong fit, a compelling fit with blockchain that is worth exploring. Data integrity and trust were the two capabilities that came to mind initially. »
Blockchain can also help manage cyber risk, James added, and it was one of the first applications explored by NREL.
“The network is changing,” said Dave Benton, an NREL cybersecurity research expert. “It is evolving to meet the new demands of new distributed energy. More wind, more solar, more batteries. And we can’t go on this journey without knowing how security is going to be impacted and how security is going to have to change to embrace these new technologies. So in our role in the lab, we have to look at what the network will look like in two to three years and how we’re going to adapt to that. And if a technology like blockchain is that glue or that fabric that could help pull it all together, that’s absolutely where we want to go.
Blockchain will give utilities less control than legacy systems, said Christopher Irwin, program manager at the US Department of Energy, but it will make the system work better. He likens the transition to the advent of anti-lock braking for automobiles, which gave drivers less control over their brakes, to their great advantage.
“It’s much more complex,” he said of anti-lock braking. “You won’t really be in control of the situation anymore. And you’ll love the results.
“It’s a perfect metaphor for the grid; we make it more complex. We take control away from that centralized source, and we do it because the performance could not be obtained any other way,” he said. “Blockchain, of course, is one of them because we need the most efficient mechanism to maintain trust between parties, where we’re never going to trust each other perfectly, but we can find a way to complete a transaction. “
Watch the full discussion: