‘Blockchain’ may be one of those tech terms that are easiest to understand by not trying. But the concept could finally unlock the potential of a radically distributed electrical grid, where thousands of large and small “producers” constantly contribute flickering burst of power that are homogenized and made reliable for steady delivery to utility consumers, likewise big and small.
The concept of that distributed network has been well articulated by energy visionaries. In practice, it has been harder to implement than one-to-many grids, where a big, central plant generates the electricity and everyone else uses and pays for it.
Two-way meters that allow customers with solar panels on their roof, for example, to record credit for the electricity they generate have been around for a while. But integrating power from a larger range of so-called “grid-edge devices” has proven more challenging.
“Grid edge devices lack visibility, control, and security to conduct real-time energy transactions with the required security, speed, and scale,” Michael Mylrea, who studies grid cybersecurity at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told Greentech Media.
Enter blockchain technology—best imagined as a highly secure ledger system maintained in the Internet cloud, where many users can log transactions in real time and the transactions cannot subsequently be altered. That would provide a cheat-proof system for keeping track of the countless micro-contributions and micro-withdrawals—as well as much larger ones—that will constitute the dispersed grid of the future.
“Blockchain would help a lot in this domain because it provides a highly structured and immutable audit trail, complete with the identity of every actor in the system,” said Alex Miller, co-founder of blockchain startup Grid+. “Any data alteration of any kind is extremely easy to detect. This makes fraud extremely difficult.”
The Pacific Northwest Lab is working with the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington State University, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Siemens, and the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a blockchain application that “potentially increases the efficiency and scalability of a more distributed grid, while at the same time making it more cyber-resilient,” Mylrea said.