Coauthored by Richard Shandross
These days, clean energy media and the utility industry are abuzz with talk about peer-to-peer (P2P) energy, the idea that power generation and consumption can be fully decentralized. More specifically, startups in multiple places around the globe have latched upon the concept of utility customers who own renewable energy resources—prosumers—selling their power directly to their neighbors or others in their town or city. They promise platforms that empower customer choice, support local green energy, and sometimes even save or make the customer money in the process. It’s a very appealing idea, and the customer excitement it generates has not escaped the eyes of utility management. Many utilities are considering their own play in this space, and several have announced products and/or partnerships.
Invariably, the solutions involve blockchain technology. Blockchain is the epitome of decentralization, and some implementations allow users to enter into smart contracts as part of a complete transaction platform. Because of this pairing of P2P energy transactions with blockchain technology, many people equate transactive energy with blockchain P2P. However, transactive energy represents a broad set of activities that includes much more than this type of solution.
Possibility of True P2P Energy Transactions
A more fundamental question is whether true P2P energy transactions are even possible. Traditionally, P2P transactions occur when peers make their resources directly available to other participants without central coordination. There are a few select scenarios in which this can occur between prosumers and consumers (for instance, in microgrids that can be isolated from the main distribution grid). Yet, for the majority of customers, this is not how distributed power transactions will work. Two factors typically prevent transactions that are being labeled as P2P to deviate from true P2P:
- Unless the two parties run their own power line between their respective sites—which is highly unlikely—the power generated by prosumers and the power used by consumers must travel over a utility’s distribution network. The operation of this network is coordinated by the distribution utility, not the peers in the transaction.
- Because the distribution network is used, the prosumer will be paid for the power it exports, and the consumer will pay for the power it uses, according to the utility tariffs applicable to them. The two parties do not determine the price; rather, they use the blockchain platform to negotiate and implement their own, separate transaction. That transaction is in addition to, rather than in place of, the standard transaction with the utility.
In other words, the distributed nature of blockchain technology does not mean that everything about what is being called blockchain P2P is distributed. The purchase and sale of power on a distribution grid involves centralized control.
We will discuss situations in which a true P2P energy transaction is possible in a separate blog. But for the vast majority of cases, a different type of connection between prosumer and consumer is needed to achieve the goals of customer choice, support of local generators, green energy, etc. An alternative already exists, which is to intentionally include distribution and/or supply companies in the transaction. An example of this would be a model in which:
- Consumers pay their current retail tariff—including taxes and distribution charge—or a shade below it (as an incentive) for locally sourced power. This tariff could incorporate pricing signals that incentivize behavior that supports grid operation.
- The distribution network operator receives a small fee for the use of its infrastructure.
- The supply company earns a small fee for operating the transactive platform—which could be based on blockchain to save on transaction and processing costs.
- Prosumers are paid a price significantly above wholesale, but below retail.
Role of Blockchain and Transactive Energy
What about the role of blockchain in the electric power industry? That is a big subject, one that is currently under construction by many parties in the industry. Here are a few possible ways to employ blockchain—any of which could have a significant impact on the power industry or portions of it:
- Data logging: For example, Grid Singularity in Austria is setting up a platform for monitoring and sharing of power/energy production data worldwide.
- Asset valuation: Another Grid Singularity innovation, the blockchain would store immutable performance data for an asset.
- Certificates: P2P market ledger for renewable energy certificate trading and purchase.
- Bill payment: Would allow unbanked customers to pay bills via cryptocurrency. Another use would be third-party bill payments by NGOs, charities, relatives, etc.
- Conditional energy supply: Smart contracts could be employed to allow condition-based choice of generation sources involving weather, prices, or other complex conditions.
Transactive energy and blockchain are both exciting, emerging technologies that are currently in nascent states. There is potential for them to be employed together to positive effect. However, they should not be equated with each other and, except in rare situations, they do not enable true P2P energy transfer.