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  • 2018-08-20 12:06


TEPCO, Japan’s largest energy firm, is an unlikely advocate of techno-anarchy. The firm is best known for the meltdown at its Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear-power plant in 2011, during which its buttoned-down executives showed corporate Japan at its most stultified. Yet it is trying to reinvent itself as a pioneer of one of the edgiest forms of energy. It is embracing blockchain technology with an aim, no less, of overthrowing the old order in the electricity business to make it more decentralised.


Blockchains, the technologies on which bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are built, may at first appear to be an uneasy fit with the energy business. Electricity has in the past been generated centrally, run across vast physical grids, with constant management by system operators to keep power flowing smoothly. Blockchains are distributed digital ledgers, which are not managed by a central authority, but collectively by a group of users. If anything, cryptocurrency blockchains are a drain on energy rather than a support for it. Digiconomist, a blog, estimates that just one bitcoin transaction uses as much electricity as an average household in the Netherlands uses in a month.


Yet in an era when more businesses, communities and households are generating their own energy, chiefly via solar and wind power, startups and big utilities alike believe blockchains will help speed the move towards decentralisation. They are finding ways to do this with minimal energy consumption.


There is lots of hype and a degree of heresy, given that stodgy utilities are making use of an anti-establishment technology. Almost all blockchain applications are still experimental. But the scope of potential blockchain-energy businesses is so wide that there may be successes to come. The applications range from ways to promote buying, selling or trading of clean energy between individuals (also called peer-to-peer trading), to balancing wholesale electricity markets (ensuring that supply always matches demand), to trading carbon credits.

Further uses are enabling households to provide charging stations for electric cars, and funding the development of solar power in poor countries.

相关数据尚不明确。由美国前能源部长Ernest Moniz领导的智库,能源远景组织(The Energy Futures Initiative)称,已经有1-3亿美元的投资进入到一百多家使用区块链技术的能源企业当中。美国外交关系协会(Council on Foreign Relations, CFR)的专家称,到目前为止,绝大部分投资投入了点对点能源交易和平衡电网电量的应用中。在这些投资中,投资者都秉承了“勇于尝试”的态度。一家旨在为能源行业开发区块链核心技术的非营利性企业,能源网络基金会(Energy Web Foundation,EWF)的Sam Hartnett评论道:“这有点像在1995年时人们看待移动电话的感觉,大家都不知道移动通讯的未来会是什么样。”

Numbers are hazy. The Energy Futures Initiative, a think-tank led by Ernest Moniz, a former American energy secretary, says that $100m-300m has been invested in over 100 blockchain-related energy ventures. Specialists at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an American think-tank, say most investment so far has gone into peer-to-peer trading and grid-balancing applications. A “try-anything” attitude prevails. “It is like looking at cell phones circa 1995 and not knowing what the future of mobile communications will be,” says Sam Hartnett of the, a non-profit venture aimed at developing core blockchain technology for the energy industry.


Tepco, for instance, appears to be throwing the digital equivalent of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. In December, it made an investment of an undisclosed sum in Electron, a British blockchain company that is focusing chiefly on handling the multiplying options for flexible demand in electricity systems. In April Electrify, a Singapore-based startup, said it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Tepco to experiment with peer-to-peer electricity trading. The Japanese group is also one of more than 70 firms, including utilities Duke Energy and Centrica, and oil firms Royal Dutch Shell and Equinor, that are part of the EWF. Among many initiatives, the EWF is pioneering a blockchain application that tracks renewable-energy certificates used to offset carbon emissions to make them more transparent and granular.


Experts say it is important to bust two myths—one too positive, the other too negative—about the blockchain and energy. First, there is a view, promoted in many initial coin offerings, that everyone will be able to use the blockchain and cryptocurrencies to trade locally-generated energy (rooftop solar, for instance) with each other, without a centralised utility in the middle. This is largely nonsense. Electricity still needs to travel down poles and wires, for which the transmission and distribution companies will want hard cash. The blockchain will be used, if at all, at either end of the grid.


On the negative side, a view prevails that the blockchain will guzzle too much electricity for energy applications to make sense. But this assumes that projects will use a public blockchain such as bitcoin, which anyone can access with the right software, requiring lots of computing power and time to verify each transaction and protect the blockchain. Energy firms could in fact employ blockchains in which only trusted participants can join, making the process of maintaining the blockchain faster and less energy-hungry.

Harnett称,虽然比特币转账所需要电量大致相当于一个中型国家的日常用电量,EWF所用区块链的用电量“只相当于一个中型大小的办公楼”。能源公司在区块链这项能把他们的命革掉的技术中发现了机会,即建立只邀请特定伙伴的区块链。而这些能源公司会通过这项技术,在能源的去中心化过程中保持中心地位。“在未来几年,那些最可能商业化的区块链企业将主要同现有体制合作,并与能源公司保持伙伴关系,”CFR的一份报告如是说。或者正如Electrify 公司的Martin Lim 生动的评论:“多么讽刺。昨天是反贼,今日受招安。”

Mr Harnett says that, while bitcoin transactions can consume the energy of a medium-sized country when done regularly, those of EWF are “of the order of a medium-sized office building”. The use of trusted pools of participants is where the utilities spy an opportunity to co-opt a potentially insurgent technology; they will use it to remain central to the decentralisation of electricity. “The [blockchain] ventures most likely to achieve commercial traction in the coming years will largely work within the existing system and partner with incumbents such as utilities,” says the CFR report. Or as Electrify’s Martin Lim colourfully puts it, “It’s ironic. Every subversive turns into a dictator.”

《经济学人》(英语:The Economist)是一份英国的英文新闻周报,它在1843年9月由詹姆斯·威尔逊创办。是一本涉及全球政治、经济、文化、科技等多方面事务的综合性新闻评论刊物,着重于对这些议题提供深入的分析和评论。它面向教育程度较高的人群,读者中包括诸多具有影响力的高管和决策者。本文选自经济学人2018年8月2日的文章。


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