Sun, Mar 19, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Solar experiment lets neighbors trade energy among themselves

The experimental Brooklyn Microgrid project is signing up residents and businesses to a virtual trading platform that allows solar energy producers to sell excess electricity credits to buyers in the group

By Diane Cardwell  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Illustration: June Hsu

Brooklyn is known the world over for things small-batch and local, such as designer clogs, craft bourbon and artisanal sauerkraut.

Now, it is trying to add electricity to the list.

In a promising experiment in an affluent swath of the borough, dozens of solar panel arrays spread across row-house rooftops are wired into a growing network. Called the Brooklyn Microgrid, the project is signing up residents and businesses to a virtual trading platform that will allow solar-energy producers to sell excess-electricity credits from their systems to buyers in the group, who might live as close as next door.

The project is still in its early stages — it has just 50 participants thus far — but its implications could be far-reaching. The idea is to create a kind of virtual, peer-to-peer energy trading system built on blockchain, the database technology that underlies cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.

The ability to complete secure transactions and create a business based on energy sharing would allow participants to bypass the electric company energy supply and ultimately build a microgrid with energy generation and storage components that could function on their own, even during broad power failures.

“Community members can work both individually and collectively to help meet demand in an efficient way,” said Audrey Zibelman, who recently resigned as chairwoman of the New York state Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities.

“It takes a central procurer — in this case, historically, the utility — out of the mix, and really sets the market where they’re not buying and selling to the utility, but they’re identifying each other’s need and willingness to buy and sell,” she said.

The project is just one example of how rapidly spreading technologies like rooftop solar and blockchain are upending the traditional relationships between electric companies and consumers, putting ever more control in the hands of customers.

Across the globe, upstart companies such as LO3 Energy, which is designing the Brooklyn experiment with the industrial giant Siemens, are building digital networks that offer the promise of user-driven, decentralized energy systems that can work in tandem with the traditional large-scale grid, or, especially in emerging economies, avoid the need for a grid at all.

In Australia, where Zibelman is soon to run the nation’s energy markets, a company called Power Ledger last year announced the start of a residential electricity trading market based in blockchain at a housing development in Perth.

In Bangladesh, where an estimated 65 million people lack access to a central grid, ME SOLshare has been developing peer-to-peer trading networks of rural households with and without rooftop solar systems. Producer-consumers there — known as “prosumers” — can sell excess power into the network, where neighboring homes and businesses can buy it in small increments with a cellphone.

In Germany, Sonnen, a leading supplier of home batteries and “smart” energy products and services, has created a web of about 8,000 customers, both with and without solar on their roofs, who are trading their stored energy among one another.

“Peer-to-peer is slowly, but surely becoming a reality,” said Olaf Lohr, Sonnen’s head of US business development. “This really is a very disruptive technology. The customers are also the owners — they are the producers of the energy. There is no centralized feed-in from one big power plant.”

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