Blockchain helps us take green power into our own hands

This is part of “Fight The Power,” a series about the people, organizations and countries transforming the way we think about energy for the better.

One way to get a job with the company you think will help save the planet is to say you’ll work for free.That’s what Canadian Meagan Cojocar told David Martin two years ago over coffee. She was 21 years old.

The company was Power Ledger, co-founded by Martin. The tiny Australian startup was at the forefront of a trend in solar energy: using blockchain technology in solar energy trading. Power Ledger had pitched an app: If you have solar energy panels, you can download the app and enter a marketplace for selling excess energy directly to your neighbors. The kicker? You can set the price, instead of being ripped off by stingy power companies.

Blockchain was Power Ledger’s answer to keep people using green energy. It could be the future of distributed renewable energy, putting that power in the hands of the consumers.

Not a blockchain expert? Don’t worry. Cojocar says she “didn’t fully understand it” at first either.

To track the energy your solar panels produce, Power Ledger installs software that uses blockchain into your power meter. Blockchain is a technology that basically involves a ledger housed in more than one public computer. If one computer is corrupted, others have the original record.

The blockchain also keeps your power company accountable. Before you can trade energy with your neighbor, you need to buy “Sparkz,” a digital currency, from your power company, sold at a flat rate of 1 cent each. The Sparkz sit in your digital wallet and can be converted to Australian dollars whenever you want. By preselling energy, the companies can pay the operator who maintains the grid.

Power Ledger’s origin story began a long time ago.

Martin, the co-founder, had been working in the solar energy business for 20 years. In 2005, while flying around Western Australia’s countryside for the government, connecting solar energy batteries to microgrids, he encountered a major problem: Cheaper batteries encouraged people to go off-grid, hiking up prices for everyone else. Electricity was already pricey, and with fewer people contributing to the grid, it grew even more expensive.

He crossed paths with Jemma Green, his future Power Ledger co-founder, through various solar energy conferences. She was a “disenchanted merchant banker” who’d moved back to Perth in 2013 after 11 years in the UK. Before her return, she took a hiking trip through Europe, Chile, Israel, Nepal, Machu Picchu and Patagonia. Those experiences inspired her: What if she could create her own eco village?

So she started working toward a Ph.D. in disruptive technology looking at peer-to-peer energy trading. She wanted to help the government incentivize the installation of photovoltaic (PV) panels on apartment roofs. She wanted to give people a way of earning electricity credit for the energy their panels store when they’re not at home.

Martin and Green realized they were looking at two sides of the same problem. She was trying to find a way to separate energy and its value. He was trying to find a way of encouraging people using solar to stay connected to the distribution networks.

Years passed. Then, in 2015, a former banking colleague of Green’s introduced her to some blockchain developers. It was a year before companies began popularizing the use of blockchain for applications outside cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

“I met them and asked them what can be done in electricity,” Green says.

She introduced them to Martin.

At first Martin didn’t see how the idea would work.

“One example we’d seen was where people had recreated a new network,” he says. “They’d wired up a bunch of apartments so they could trade amongst themselves. I looked at it and thought, why in God’s name would you rebuild the network? You’ve already got one. You’re duplicating it. The cost of doing all that is just daft.”

That night he went out for beers with government workmates. He took a train home to the city of Cockburn, south of Perth, where a group of modern four-story units were sitting near the station, surrounding a piazza.

Martin stepped off the train. It was the middle of the night and he was standing there, looking down at the buildings. “Hang on,” he thought suddenly. “That’s how you do it!”

Martin could almost see the electricity system from above. The units were connected to the same ring main internal wiring network.

“So why rebuild the network — why not use the existing network differently?”

He called Green immediately. “I’ve realized how we can do this. We should do something about this. Do you want to form a company?”

They went on the road and met potential investors, but the response was lukewarm. After yet another disappointment, they stood in the car park outside one investor’s house, weighing their options. It was April 25, 2016 — Anzac Day, a national holiday.

“We said, ‘Well, look, what do you want to do?'” Martin recalls. “Do we do this ourselves? Do we crack on or what?”

The answer came easily. Martin and Green had the power to make a positive change in the world. They had to go ahead.

“The risks of doing nothing were too huge.”

A year later, Cojocar, who was about to invite Martin for that coffee, discovered Power Ledger didn’t even have an office yet.

She convinced the “down-to-earth” Martin that her bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Calgary, involving studies in oil and gas, could help the company. Work experience at Microsoft and Red Bull glowed on her CV.

Martin gave her the thumbs-up, but Green was yet to be convinced. Green set a task: a competitive analysis of all the other companies using blockchain. One “massive” document later, Cojocar became one of the first Power Ledger employees.

One of her first contributions involved a multimillion-dollar international coin offering (ICO).

Power Ledger’s timing couldn’t have been better. In 2016, blockchain gained traction among companies that started investing big in distributed ledger technology.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), which runs government renewable programs, and established energy company AGL Limited started to look into blockchain and peer-to-peer trading, with their first trial to take place in Melbourne. Sonnen, a German battery system maker, introduced its “virtual plant” with distributed battery storage.

Meanwhile, the smaller, barely known Power Ledger turned to the public. It launched Australia’s first-ever ICO, which is basically a form of crowdfunding using cryptocurrencies. People bought POWR tokens, kind of like shares, in Power Ledger’s blockchain. Its underlying blockchain technology is based on Ethereum, an alternative to bitcoin.

“It was insane,” Cojocar says, recalling how tiring the process was.

At the time, Power Ledger’s newest, cheapest employee had just returned to Canada to finish up her degree. “We would have to be working 24 hours — so the other analysts would work till like 9 or 10, call me, transition to me and I would work all day.”

In just six weeks, the team of six developers, including Cojocar, had raised AU$34.15 million.

Not everyone in the electricity industry believes in blockchain.

Dylan McConnell, a Ph.D. researcher at the Australian-German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne, says using blockchain could be no more than an excellent marketing ploy.

“There’s certainly a lot of buzz around it, but it’s not clear to me that there are good examples of how this can be implemented or what the value of it is in the electricity sector specifically.”

The researcher, who spent five years from 2011 to 2016 working for the Melbourne Energy Institute on resource and climate change issues, says blockchain addresses an issue the electricity sector doesn’t have.

“Blockchain is basically a better way of managing settlement between different participants. And that is just not an issue in the electricity sector.”

According to McConnell, that’s because the wholesale electricity market has a transparent system — websites like McConnell’s OpenNEM show generated data on a five-minute basis of the price of every single unit of every single power station.

“You can see everything at a very high degree of granularity.”

Melbourne startup GreenSync is one example of a company investing in peer-to-peer without blockchain. It launched its pilot phase of deX, or decentralized energy exchange, in February this year, through which anyone — including households, companies and utilities — can share energy. It has the backing of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which manages Australia’s largest gas and electricity markets and power systems, and has partnered with AGL Energy, among others.

McConnell says the main issue preventing the energy transition is policy.

“There’s this whole debate about having an energy policy — we don’t have any at the moment effectively. No one is building anything because there’s too much political uncertainty.”

The other issue is people “free-riding” the system. “A lot of the value that customer is getting is by not paying for services that they should be paying for like grid infrastructure. Because they’re not paying for it, that cost gets loaded up onto people that don’t have the solar PPA.”

He suggests social equity issues like this are too complex for startups to deal with.

“In effect, a lot of the innovative ideas and startups existing in this space actually might exacerbate this problem.”

Despite the maturity of the electricity business, Power Ledger’s innovation stood out to Cojocar. Her year-long work experience at Microsoft’s corporate office in Mississauga, Ontario, in 2013 revealed the nature of the “big company.”

“I found that the people I was working for weren’t overly passionate. It really made me not want to go the SAP, Microsoft, Apple, Google route, but rather the people that are still innovating.”

Power Ledger is finding success on a larger scale. After an initial trial in 2016 in a lifestyle village in Busselton, Western Australia, it successfully completed trials the same year at 500 sites in Auckland, New Zealand, including schools and community groups. Now it has two commercial developments in Perth and last year started government-backed trials with apartments in Bangkok and partnered with an IT company in India focusing on microgrids.

Its latest deals have given it footholds in two huge energy markets: the US and Japan. It will deploy Power Ledger at Northwestern University buildings, near Chicago, and conduct another 10-home trial in Osaka, Japan, with one of the country’s largest power utilities.

“We want Power Ledger to be the ubiquitous energy trading platform used around the world,” Martin says.

He adds, on the issue of policy: “We’re doing trials to demonstrate the technology and justify a regulatory reform, but that’s going to take some time.”

Now, after two years of rapid growth and attention, the startup has an office. Analyst Cojocar says its 30 staff members sit together in one area, where they play music, use the messaging service Telegram to share articles and have “stand-ups” every week, at which they discuss what they’ve achieved.

“It’s so funny,” she says, looking back on the whole job-finding experience. “When you’re an undergraduate, you have all these options. I would never have thought I would want to be in a startup like this.

“With Power Ledger, every day is a different story.”