Navigant Research Blog

Takeaways from Reversapalooza: One Analyst’s Perspective on Blockchain

— May 15, 2018

I recently returned from Reversapalooza, a 2-day event hosted by Nori and designed to explore the role of blockchain technology in reversing climate change. There were farmers, economists, policymakers, academics, and representatives from many other professions in attendance. In the conversations that ensued, blockchain took a backseat to Nori’s larger mission.

Blockchain is a hot topic at conferences globally and in many sectors, but this event was one of the few large-scale conversations I have participated in where the “hash everything and put it on the blockchain” crowd were a minority. The event gave me the opportunity to reflect on how blockchain is perceived by stakeholders with a wide range of familiarity with the technology. The majority of customers who will be the end users of blockchain-based solutions probably won’t understand the underlying systems, but they still need to be able to engage with the system.

Blockchain Attracts People, but It Can Also Alienate Them

Blockchain generates a huge amount of interest even outside of tech-savvy circles. I have yet to speak with someone who has heard about blockchain and doesn’t care to learn more about it. It is very tempting for early innovators to put blockchain front and center to capitalize on that interest.

However, once you get people in the door, you need to be prepared to explain in simple terms what blockchain brings to the table and why you’re talking about it in the first place. The technology is complex and difficult to visualize. Without proper care, it can begin to sound suspiciously like wizardry.

Demonstrations Help Clarify Blockchain

Nori worked hard at Reversapalooza to create interactive exercises that demystified some aspects of the customer experience with blockchain-based systems. One gave folks in the room hands-on experience with trading mock carbon removal credits (CRCs), and a second used 10 copies of the Seattle Times, some simple addition, and a 5-dollar bill to illustrate the fundamental steps involved in building a blockchain.

Results were mixed, but any explanation of blockchain must strike a difficult balance between oversimplification and a black hole of technical details. Overall, attendees left the conference knowing more about blockchain than they did when they came into the room.

Blockchain Should Never Be in the Driver’s Seat

I dream of the day when blockchain becomes a means to an end for companies like Nori, and panels devoted to its specifics are no longer necessary. When was the last time you attended a conference with a panel on database mechanics?

Today, companies that use blockchain but neglect to explain it risk appearing like they don’t know what they’re doing. They can’t afford to push it completely into the background. But startups and established players alike must recognize that blockchain, by itself, is not a value proposition. Succeeding in this space requires a clear mission and purpose—a goal where blockchain makes sense as the means to an end.

What Did Reversapalooza Do Right?

Reversapalooza succeeded because Nori kept blockchain in the backseat (or at least in the passenger seat). The event was about reversing climate change and the many processes—behavioral, economic, geological, and scientific—that are necessary to achieve that goal. Within that context, attendees could see the value of a trusted, decentralized ledger that could track CRCs and compare it against the carbon offset markets and other mechanisms that currently exist.

 

Swinging the Blockchain Hammer – Event Horizon 2018: Part 2

— May 8, 2018

In my second post following the Event Horizon 2018 event, I discuss blockchain startups’ business models. I see too many startups following the peer-to-peer energy trading model, rather than pursuing business models that address utilities’ current needs.

A Hammer without a Nail Is Just Scrap Metal

Innovation in the technology industry is unrivaled. “Necessity is the mother of invention” may be the credo for utilities’ innovation efforts, but the technology industry is different: it must stay ahead of the curve through endless cycles of R&D. The output of this research has given birth to many fantastic products that have revolutionized the way we live—no one really knew they needed an iPod or smartphone until the products were brought to market.

Conversely, many fantastic technologies—from Betamax VCRs to Google Glass—fall ignominiously by the wayside. They are the proverbial hammers that failed to find a nail. Despite the hype, right now blockchain is a hammer searching for a nail. The rash of startups developing energy-focused blockchain solutions are each hoping their solution will be the one that transforms the industry. However, there is likely not enough room for all of them.

Peer-to-Peer Energy Trading Is (Probably) Not the Right Nail

However, I have concerns that the business models pursued by many startups are not optimizing the pursuit of those elusive nails. After many conversations with people across the industry and listening to several startup pitches, I am worried that too much investment is flowing into the wrong business models. Right now, the majority of energy-focused blockchain startups include some element of peer-to-peer energy trading. While I remain positive about the future of transactive energy markets, there are still significant barriers to adoption.

So why are there so many TE-related startups? The cynic in me believes that too many of the people behind these startups are following the money and copying the business models of previously successful initial coin offerings (ICOs). Rather than spending time with a utility to identify existing business needs, it’s far easier to raise a few million dollars by launching an ICO with a white paper that promises Uber-style industry disruption and bitcoin-like token inflation.

ICO Follow-the-Leader Will Consign Many Startups to the Scrapheap

There is a saying often, but incorrectly, attributed to Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Unfortunately, blockchain startups seem to value short-term ICO success, not the value of their business models: too many are recycling the business models of their peers to raise seed capital rather than identifying the business pain points that blockchain can address. This is not just unoriginal; it is fraught with danger.

Potential new entrants will do well to note the following observations before deciding on their business models:

  • We do not need any more peer-to-peer blockchain startups. More than enough currently exist for the world’s transactive energy requirements.
  • A peer-to-peer trading platform does not address any current, pressing issue with utility industry business processes.
  • The energy industry is not the taxi industry. Regulators will not permit Uber-style disruption. No startup can simply release an app and instantly sideline industry incumbents.
  • Regulatory approval for peer-to-peer energy trading could easily take longer than it takes a startup to spend all its seed capital.
  • No peer-to-peer energy trading model will create cryptocurrency billionaires. Startups should think twice about using any form of token. I am unconvinced regulators will permit the energy system to be priced in anything other than fiat currency.
  • True peer-to-peer energy trading is a physical impossibility; some form of centralized control and pricing must be done to maintain electricity networks.
 

Electricity Landscape: Expanding Demand

— January 30, 2018

On January 16, 2018, I attended the US launch of the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s World Energy Outlook (WEO) 2017 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA, presented findings from the WEO and highlighted four megatrends in the global energy system:

  • Rapid deployment and falling costs of clean energy technologies
  • Growth in electrification of energy
  • China’s shift to a more services-based economy and a clean energy mix
  • The US’s position as the biggest oil & gas producer globally

Taking these megatrends into account, as well as projections on where existing policies and announced intentions may lead the energy systems, WEO’s New Policies Scenario expects global energy needs to increase by 30% between 2018 and 2040. This growth is mainly driven by India, whose share of global energy use is expected to rise to 11% by 2040. Southeast Asia also contributes immensely to overall growing demand. Developing countries in Asia Pacific are expected to account for two-thirds of global energy growth.

Growing Demand for Electricity

With a rising standard of living in many developing countries, more people will want to buy appliances and electronic devices powered by electricity. Innovative transportation technologies are gaining momentum and are projected to increase electricity demand as well. For example, China will need to add the equivalent of today’s US power system to its infrastructure by 2040 to meet rising electricity demand; India needs to add a power system the size of the current European Union. In fact, global investment in electricity overtook that of oil & gas for the first time in 2016. Dr. Birol emphasized the importance of China and India’s future energy decisions. Their decisions will play a huge role in determining global trends due to the scale of investment and deployment.

WEO Electricity Demand Projections to 2040

(Source: International Energy Agency)

Heating and Cooling Demand Ramping Up

The growing demand for heating and cooling is among various drivers for electrification of energy. In particular, consumers in warmer regions will increasingly install cooling systems. There is great potential for energy savings with energy efficient HVAC products, but that market remains largely untapped at present. According to the recent Navigant Research report, Market Data: Energy Efficient Buildings – Asia Pacific, the energy efficient HVAC market in Asia Pacific is expected to reach $25.6 billion in 2026. Specifically, China’s market is expected to grow at a 10.5% CAGR between 2017 and 2026; and 11.4% in India. Today, heating and cooling in buildings account for approximately 40% of energy consumption.

In addition to demand for heating and cooling, the EV market is expected to grow rapidly. EVs can lead to a major low-carbon pathway for the transportation sector. Notably, Europe and China are aggressively promoting EV deployments. Navigant Research projects global plug-in EV sales to reach 8.3 million by 2026.

Increasing Electricity Demands

Overall, end-use electrification is expanding. The IEA expects the share of electricity in final energy demand to increase from 18% today to 26% in by 2060. So, what does the growing electrification of energy mean? Electrification creates environmental benefits by shifting many end uses of electricity away from fossil fuel sources. It also creates opportunities for boosting energy efficiency.

While there are still many challenges to overcome, such as enforcing energy efficiency regulations and developing EV infrastructure, the electrification of large sectors of the economy holds great growth potential. This growth will be driven by rapidly evolving technologies, emerging innovative business models, and shifting regulatory environment. Together, these are referred to as the Energy Cloud, disrupting the traditional electricity landscape. To learn more about how industry stakeholders can prepare and manage their organization to maneuver through the Energy Cloud disruption and position themselves for long-term success, see Navigant Research’s white paper, Navigating the Energy Transformation.

 

CES 2018: The Year of Behind-the-Scenes Innovation

— January 23, 2018

A year ago at CES, the event belonged to Amazon’s Alexa, with vendors touting Alexa integrations and displaying Echo devices prominently at their respective booths. At CES 2018, however, a single showstopper failed to materialize—unless one includes the power outage at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was the biggest surprise (and I was there). In lieu of one standout product, I noted several key trends, including the ever-popular artificial intelligence (AI), a growing number of home healthcare offerings, an aggressive push from Google, and an expanding presence of French startups.

Everybody Is Doing AI

This year, much of the innovation is taking place in the backend software of smart products: the AI world. Nearly every company I spoke with flaunted the use of deep learning and AI. While the term AI was used loosely to describe algorithms and machine learning, this behind-the-scenes technology is progressing, which enables more advanced functionality for smart products. There are new and better algorithms, such as those used in Philips’ Hue Sync, which enables multiple connected lights to respond in sync to movies, video games, and music in real time. Advancements in machine learning are enabling digital assistants to recognize the voices of individual people and understand conversational context.

Home Healthcare Edges its Way into the Spotlight

Home healthcare continues to edge its way into more connected products, and this was underscored as I made my way around the crowded show floors. Offerings varied from elderly care solutions, to products for promoting better sleep, to services for people to better connect with their doctors. While propositions such as security, energy, and convenience are largely driving smart home adoption, healthcare solutions can provide enhanced value on a more personal or familial level. Health-focused products can help users better track their own health or the health of loved ones, and can help prevent unexpected illnesses and diseases.

Google Starts Taking CES and the Smart Home Seriously

Google’s presence was everywhere at CES 2018. The search giant’s messaging took over the Monorail, the Aria hotel’s display featured “Hey, Google” ads, and a giant Google gumball-style machine dispensed Homes and Minis to lucky CES attendees. Amazon took a lighter approach by booking ballrooms dedicated to business meetings with various Amazon business groups, including Alexa. This increased presence not only shows that these two companies are taking their engagement in the smart home market more seriously, but it also highlights the absence of Apple. Apple is being left behind in the smart home space, especially with the delay of its HomePod speaker and a continuous lack of traction with HomeKit.

The French Are Innovating

France’s efforts to become the startup capital of Europe were made obvious at CES by the sheer number of French startups present during CES 2018. From companies demonstrating software for making bathroom mirrors smart to Li-Fi-based IoT platform providers, the French are innovating and becoming a hotbed of opportunity for stakeholders across smart industries.

A World in Transition

Though CES 2018 did not have one major theme like that of past shows, the trends I observed fell in line with the progression of digitization that Navigant Research is seeing. Companies are transitioning from deploying hardware devices to enhancing their existing solutions through data and backend software. Large tech incumbents are recognizing the power of the smart home and investing heavily. New value propositions for this tech are emerging and providing more convincing use cases for consumers; new markets are growing from this opportunity. To learn more about these trends, see Navigant Research’s white paper on IoT and the Future of Networked Energy.

 

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