Corporate neighbors in Pennsylvania share solar power, courtesy of blockchain

American PowerNet solar
Power Ledger
American PowerNet used blockchain to share the power generated by its solar installation with two neighboring businesses in the same office park.

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Energy teams following the blockchain’s potential role as a disruptor of energy markets will be interested in an installation switched on in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, in late December.

The peer-to-peer network spearheaded by 20-year-old electricity supplier American PowerNet and using technology developed by Australian startup Power Ledger, winner of Richard Branson’s 2018 Extreme Tech Challenge, allows two of American PowerNet’s corporate neighbors to buy the excess power generated by solar panels on its rooftop and carport.

Aside from benefitting the three relatively modest-sized companies, the power company views the installation as a test bed for a future service that it could provide to its customers. "We knew this was an opportunity for us to get a handle on what [Power Ledger] could provide that was new and different, and start advancing the ball," Scott Helm, founder and president of American PowerNet, told me when we chatted about the project.

You can think of blockchain technology as akin to a digital ledger, which tracks transactions or trades and balances the accounts between various trading partners. Most systems use a form of "token" to keep tabs on who owes what to whom. The tokens also can serve as a form of verification: For example, they can be linked to carbon offsets or renewable energy credits (RECs). Trades are settled on a periodic basis, much like on a commodity exchange. Usually, the blockchain company behind an installation charges some sort of transaction fee.

American PowerNet was looking for a way to allow other businesses to benefit from the excess electricity generated by its panels rather than sending the power back to the grid under a net metering arrangement. The 35-kilowatt installation generates about two times what the company’s operations need to run its headquarters building, he said.

Mind you, American PowerNet, which helps large businesses access the wholesale markets directly, already had the licenses in place to support the blockchain-enabled peer-to-peer network among the three buildings. So it didn’t have to do much research when it came to navigating the regulatory landscape. In Power Ledger, it found a blockchain software startup willing to working within the existing utility and grid infrastructure to test and assess what’s possible.

"Engaged and enlightened utilities can do this," Dave Martin, co-founder and managing director of Power Ledger, told me.

The system they’ve developed collaboratively is configured to move electricity from PowerNet’s site to two small, privately held companies in the same corporate office park. The transfers are automated based on a set of rules defined by American PowerNet and its trading partners. The other businesses also receive bundled RECs as power is moved around the network. Helm said his neighbors jumped at the chance to become involved when his team approached them. "They liked the idea of being able to step out their door and point up at the panels,” he said.

American PowerNet is considering how it can offer this service to other customers that have made onsite renewable generation investments.

The project is the largest in the United States so far to use Power Ledger’s xGrid technology; it’s the first one in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Maryland (aka PJM) Interconnection, the largest wholesale market in the United States. Clean Energy Blockchain Network was involved in the technical minutiae. It has handled other deployments using Power Ledger’s application in Chicago and Santa Clara, California. Technically speaking, such a system could be recreated in other deregulated markets where a business seeks to maximize the value of an onsite solar installation.

Aside from support business development activities in Australia and the United States, Power Ledger has made inroads in Japan, where it is involved with a virtual power plant, and Thailand, where its technology is being used to optimize and balance solar electricity installed across an international school, shopping mall and hospital. I’ll be watching its progress.

And now, a public service announcement. Actually, two of them.

First, we’re accepting speaker nominations for VERGE 19, Oct. 22 to 24 in Oakland, California. We’d love to feature dynamic individuals from the corporate sector, NGOs, cities and the public sector who are accelerating the transition to a clean economy. 

It’s also time to suggest candidates for the fourth annual GreenBiz 30 Under 30 report, highlighting the next generation of leaders in corporate sustainability.