Navigant Research Blog

Cashing In on Blockchain

— January 23, 2018

The 325 initial coin offering (ICO) events in 2017, as tracked by CoinSchedule.com, raised a combined $3.7 billion that the Securities and Exchange Commission is still working out how to define and regulate. Surging cryptocurrency market capital is drawing huge numbers of new players into the market—some are pioneers, some are sheep, and some are going to jail for using ICOs to make a quick buck.

It is not just ICOs and greenhorn startups that dangle blockchain as a shiny object in front of investors. The combination of uncertainty, novelty, and potential for wealth has created an environment where a finance firm’s stock price can grow by 2,000% just by acquiring a blockchain company that has yet to post revenue. Seekingalpha.com put together a graphic showing how non-alcoholic beverage company, Long Island Ice Tea, boosted its stock value 183% in one day just by changing its name to Long Blockchain and by making vague promises about experimenting with the technology. Similarly, Kodak’s share prices doubled after it announced a blockchain-based photo licensing platform.

Something Is Rotten in the State of Blockchain

It is tempting to look at the explosion of blockchain projects in 2016 and 2017 as an encouraging sign that blockchain has earned its way into the mainstream as a powerful and innovative technology. Surely the diversity of companies announcing pilot currencies and proofs of concept can only be good for R&D, right?

The answer is that a yawning gap exists between announcing a project and treating the underlying technology seriously, just as there is a gap between announcing an ICO and having a real and sustainable product. Projects like this only help blockchain progress if the companies behind the announcements have a legitimate purpose beyond capitalizing on the world’s blockchain fever.

Where We Are Headed

It is possible—maybe even likely—that fraud, exploitation, and publicity stunts are a natural part of blockchain’s growing pains. And it is true that for the strong applications and business models to rise to the top, the weaker applications must drop out, one way or another.

We should not be afraid of projects and experiments failing. But is a cause for concern that blockchain has become a talisman, drawing in everyone from first-time investors to established companies, few of whom seem aware that most will fail. When the hype dies down, share values will drop with it—blockchain’s status as a magic word simply cannot last.

It is not just the opportunists that benefit from all the hype. Developers of serious blockchain solutions need to work doubly hard to separate themselves from the chaff, and they have an obligation not to let the investment flowing their way go to waste. The question is not whether the crash will come, but, as the creator of the joke turned billion dollar reality, Dogecoin, asks, “will there be enough magic left to build something real once it does?”

 

Tackling the 2 in V2G

— January 16, 2018

EV adoption is speeding up around the world, and while electrification offers emissions reductions and other benefits, it creates new challenges and opportunities for grid operators. Navigant Research expects that EVs will make up 5% of the global market for personal vehicles by 2024, and that collective charging requirements will add 160 GW of demand to electricity systems as owners switch from filling up to plugging in.

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies seem an obvious and low cost alternative to ramping up generation in the face of new demand from EVs. Why not use EV batteries to shift and shave demand peaks during the 95% of the time they sit unused? But making V2G a reality requires significant infrastructure and software developments, and EV owners must also consent to allowing grid operators access to batteries for flexibility services.

Integrating EVs Requires New Technology

If EV batteries are to be called upon for V2G, they first need a physical connection to the grid that supports two-way charging infrastructure, which are not yet widely available. However, major automakers like Honda are already developing two-way charging stations with V2G in mind, and deployment is likely to increase as more EVs hit the road.

Once two-way charging infrastructure is in place, the vehicle-station pair needs a software solution for monitoring grid signals and managing power flows. IBM and TenneT are collaborating with sonnen and Vanderbron to pilot a blockchain-based V2G platform that can adapt to conditions on the grid, such as congestion or oversupply of wind power. The blockchain records the locations and identities of devices involved, exchange volume, and other details as a secure and verifiable basis for settlement with the EV owner.

Consumers Need to Be Compensated for V2G Risks and Services

Technology is only half of the equation—EV owners also need to participate. Owners that participate in V2G take on the risks of doing so, and should expect to be compensated for providing flexibility, services, and for potential wear and tear of the vehicle’s battery (though there are conflicting views on this). Owners will also require guarantees that integrating will not cost drivers the use of their vehicle in emergencies or other situations.

In the short term, compensation might provide enough incentive for owners to adopt V2G. One study estimated the value of flexibility services from £600 to £8,000 ($800 to $10,800) of income each year for vehicle owners. Whether the income is a sufficient counter to real or perceived risks will likely vary with a customer’s individual situation, which constrains the potential of V2G.

The Rise of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) Could Help Maximize V2G Potential

Evolving vehicle ownership models could have a huge effect on V2G. In a world where consumers access on-demand fleets of EVs owned and operated by an MaaS provider rather than owning vehicles, many barriers to V2G adoption disappear.

Since demand for MaaS vehicles is likely to be cyclical, with lower demand during midday when grid congestion demand is higher, a portion of the fleet can be parked and plugged in to act as a buffer for the grid. Utilities and grid operators could partner with fleet owners to ensure that some fraction of the electrified fleet is grid-connected at any given time, providing the grid with a reliable pool of flexible resources in exchange for a new source of revenue. The service provider pools customer demand, and any effects on vehicle battery performance become a straightforward business cost.

As is often the case, the challenge is getting from here to there. Navigant Research can help—check out our latest report on the future of MaaS.

 

In an Age of Digital Disruption, Cities and Utilities Must Work Closer

— December 19, 2017

Energy transformation will force the industry to reassess existing value propositions and identify new revenue streams. Until recently, this value lay in single technologies—such as smart meters or solar PV. However, the industry is recognizing value in the convergence of technologies that have historically been treated separately. These technologies might not currently sit within a utilities’ existing area of influence. The potential convergence of EVs, automated driving, smart transportation networks, charging infrastructure, metering, and billing could create huge opportunities for utilities. The industry should keep an eye on disruption in other industries, particularly transportation and smart cities.

Utilities Must Identify Where Value Will Be Created

Kodak is an often cited example of how companies can fail in periods of industry disruption. Kodak developed the first digital camera and owned many patents related to digital photography. Yet, it failed to recognize where the future of digital photography value lay. It believed that digital photos would still be printed on Kodak paper and did not consider a future where users would share digital images online.

There are many lessons that utilities can learn from Kodak, primarily that nothing within business models can be taken for granted. No part of the value chain is immune from the risk of future irrelevance. Every company must consider where the future value will lie in the energy transition. For many, this will focus on helping customers reduce their power consumption, instead of supplying more power. ENGIE UK and the Netherland’s Eneco have both stated their intentions to shift to this service-based approach. The industry has also recognized the growth opportunity in supplying power to EVs and the associated vehicle-to-grid services.

There Is Significantly More Value for Utilities beyond EV Recharging Infrastructure

However, I would posit that utilities have not yet recognized the potential value that lies beyond EV charging infrastructure, supply, and grid services. The automotive industry is undergoing a period of disruption arguably greater than what utilities are experiencing. As city leaders are increasingly concerned about pollution and congestion, cities such as Paris, Athens, Madrid, and Mexico City have announced bans on the most polluting diesel vehicles by 2025. The UK, France, and China have announced bans on the sale of all light duty internal combustion engine vehicles in the next 20 years.

While EVs will play a large part in the shift away from petrol and diesel and offer an opportunity to utilities, there is significant value to be gained by the most ambitious utility. Decarbonization is just one part of automotive disruption, and we are starting to see a shift in trends of car ownership. Increasing numbers of urban residents are turning their backs on car ownership. Singapore has legislated that there will be no net increase in car ownership after 2020. Auto manufacturers are investing millions in automated vehicles, which could hugely disrupt ownership models and, consequently, the taxi and car hire industries.

Utilities Must Work Closer with City Leaders

City leaders—keen to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion—could be the primary driving force behind a shift to shared ownership and automated models. However, they will need partners to deliver the sophistication of smart transportation services. Utilities have an opportunity to provide the recharging infrastructure for EVs, so it is not inconceivable that they can manage additional infrastructure, such as the metering and billing of automated vehicle use, predictive maintenance of vehicle fleets, fleet asset management services, and more.

Over the past decade, I have witnessed (at least some) utilities’ reluctance to cooperate with smart city programs. However, the concomitant digitization and disruption of electricity and transport create a strong argument for cities and utilities to work closer for their mutual benefit and the benefit of citizens. Navigant Research recently published a list of recommendations for utilities to work closer with city leaders.

 

Putting Blockchain in Its Proper Context

— November 10, 2017

Coauthored by Stuart Ravens

If blockchain evangelists are to be believed, it is going to be big. The so-called Internet of Value will disrupt and decentralize our financial system, healthcare, and electric grids. The massive, centralized powers-that-be will not make it out of this transformation intact.

The truth? There is something out there with significant potential to decentralize much, but not all, of our societal infrastructure. Is blockchain the magic ingredient used in decentralization? No, not really. As Bitcoin expert Andreas Antonopoulos notes, claiming that blockchain is the factor that creates decentralization is like claiming that wings alone are responsible for aviation … but put wings on a building and it still won’t fly.

What Guarantees Trustless, Immutable Decentralization?

Released in 2009, the Bitcoin platform revolutionized decentralization by making every transaction 100% verifiable by every participant without having to rely on anything beyond the software it runs on. It also prevents anyone from meaningfully gaming the system. Andreas Antonopoulos spells out four key pieces of Bitcoin that—only in combination—lead to a fully decentralized and immutable application:

  1. A blockchain ledger that is distributed throughout the system and can be validated by any participant.
  2. A consensus algorithm that is open and subject to precise and consistent rules.
  3. A reward of real value for properly validating the next block, (importantly) paid in bitcoin.
  4. A competition that determines who gets to validate the next block and receive the reward. Critically, each competitor must pay a significant cost in computing energy as an entry fee.

Similar levels of decentralization are critical to proving asset, identity, or land ownership. However, there are many instances when decentralization or immutability need not be so strict, including when:

  • Only partial decentralization is needed.
  • Specific actors can be trusted.
  • Access to the ledger should be closed.
  • The ledger may require (limited) editing.
  • There are no rewards for validation.

Given individual application requirements and significant practical issues with implementing Bitcoin (e.g., mining costs, limited transaction throughput, and validation latency), blockchain solutions have been developed that rely on different structures and consensus mechanisms. Their properties fall within a wide range of decentralization and immutability.

Blockchain Does Not Guarantee Bitcoin Superpowers

Although blockchain is an underlying technology of Bitcoin, it is wrong to equate all blockchain-based solutions with Bitcoin—yet, this happens frequently. There is a risk that such misinterpretation will confuse and disappoint potential customers, and wasted resources will lead to negative press.

Utilities keen to investigate blockchain must ensure they get the right qualities, and enough of these qualities, to satisfy their requirements. They must also understand that each custom combination of consensus, trust, risk, and reward remains unproven until it has been tested at scale.

As the common component of many distributed data and/or asset systems, blockchain is becoming the de facto term for trustless, immutable decentralization. However, this is often not the case. Unfortunately, there is presently no competing term that covers the range of features and characteristics of products that include blockchain.

Navigant Research believes the industry must be more circumspect about blockchain. While there are some attractive use cases for the technology within the utility industry, there are many issues that must be resolved. Potential users should add a caveat emptor to their optimism. Navigant Research will publish a series of blockchain reports in the near future that will investigate the consequences of these issues in greater detail.

 

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