Building a decentralised energy landscape
By Nichola Davies
Energy technology company GreenSync made major waves in late October with the launch of its flagship decentralised energy exchange (deX), which looks to be a revolutionary platform for the energy industry in Australia.
Allowing buyers and sellers of every shape and size to trade energy as needed based on price, demand and availability, deX creates a marketplace for all players in the energy game to benefit from a more reliable, affordable and cleaner energy grid that unlocks the significant value of distributed energy resources.
GreenSync founder and CEO Phil Blythe has been in the technology space his entire working life. Beginning his career in what many would consider a profession pinnacle – research and development in the aerospace industry – it’s not surprising to see him doing big things with his own venture some 20 years later.
Spending two decades in technology companies around the world, Phil has tried his hand at everything from cryptography and digital media to financial insurance exchanges.
“It’s like all career paths, you sort of just do one thing and you move on to the next, so I came out of aerospace, came out of the high-tech space and then went into research and development and ended up in Europe,” Phil says.
“I worked for a scientific institute in Berlin, the Max Planck Institute, and ended up moving to London and getting involved in a start up before the big .com boom in the nineties.
Phil has been across many different disciplines, with his most recent before GreenSync being smart buildings back in Australia in the early 2000s. Around 2008 to 2009 he developed an interest in energy and jumped into the energy sector.
“I don’t have a huge background in energy but after eight years I feel pretty comfortable,” he says.
Phil founded GreenSync in 2010 with the idea that GreenSync could automate different types of devices and elements that are connected to the grid that produce energy and consume energy on wide scale in order to bring benefits through the system.
He says in the early days there was very little attention given to what they were doing and no one saw much value in it.
“We struggled to get a meeting with utilities and big players in the market,” he says.
“Today it’s probably the number one or number two issue for CEOs across the country and it’s at every conference and in every newspaper.
“We have become critically important to the industry, so a huge amount has changed and I think the rate of penetration of distributed energy and decentralised energy that’s coming with this transition towards renewables is remarkable.”
Australia has a higher growth towards decentralisation than almost anywhere else in the world, with solar being a big driver. The storage and reliability problem of solar and more broadly renewables has created anxieties within the energy industry.
“Other countries have electric vehicles which are causing similar amounts of anxiety,” Phil says.
“I suppose for the traditional market of utilities and operators, these are external factors that are coming into our energy system that we have to deal with and really it’s a case of embracing technology as it comes in rather than resisting it.
“I think this is a big step now where the industry has to really start acting more like how tech companies behave rather than incumbent utilities.”
deX is one of the first platforms anywhere in the world of its type and it was borne out of the unique needs of the Australian energy industry.
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“Australia has got one of the most exacerbated situations anywhere in the world in terms of the rate that solar and batteries are rolling out,” Phil says.
“So sensibly enough we’ve come to the view that marketplace architecture is the way forward.
“We can extract more value out of solar panels on our rooftops and electric vehicles in our garages this way, because if we don’t have a market then we have no way to get or use that flexibility in a way that consumers and users can profit from it.”
Put simply, deX is a digital marketplace that allows the connectivity of decentralised resources. For example there are the devices we have in our homes and businesses – solar panels, battery storage systems and so on, and deX allows them to connect and transact with other players in the grid. Those other players might be the energy retailers, distribution networks, the Australian Energy Market Operator and so on, all of which will have different needs and times of need for those resources.
“Some will just want to see where those resources are, some wish to control them or restrict their use to prevent a blackout or a critical situation or a network,” Phil says.
“Others just may want to trade the energy back into the market. But in all cases, consumers want to maximise their returns for their assets they’ve paid for and deX is a platform to enable all of those value streams to come together for the owner of the asset.”
When the whitepaper on deX was released earlier this year it revealed the results of a practical feasibility study and pilot GreenSync did to integrate the first devices into the deX construct. These tests demonstrated a need for more resources to be added to the grids. Phil says the distribution grids are currently flying blind in that they don’t have enough information about what’s happening at the low levels of the networks. Providing visibility to distribution networks was one of the key findings.
“Once we start to reach a point where we can see that the system’s reaching its maximum limits, can we start to dial down the use of these resources to make sure the system stays inside its limits,” Phil says.
“If we can safely do that, it means we can add more and more renewables, more and more batteries, more and more solar and electric vehicles to the system without the concern that it’s going to break the grid.
“So the big take away for us really was if we can provide a platform that allows us to do that, governments can roll out more subsidies, utilities can provide export capabilities on the grid, hosting capacity for connecting renewables and consumers can keep buying these resources, connecting to the grid without a concern that it’s going to push the system outside its limits.”
With deX promising a more reliable, cleaner and affordable grid, the platform seems like a no brainer adoption for all involved, but in order to create a marketplace construct, Phil says we have to move the entire industry forward almost in unison.
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“So the way we’re doing that is we’re releasing two layers to the exchange, the first one is as the exchange platform and that is really to provide the connectivity to all of the different types of assets that are out in the field,” he says.
“So for us the target is to get a majority of the types of solar and storage assets that’s being connected to our grid and connected to the platform.”
GreenSync has enrolled seven of the major solar storage inverter vendors from around the world including household names such as Enphase, Sungrow, Tesla and others to be part of the platform. With these resources installed, there’s immediate visibility into the platform for them.
Phil says that there are a lot of big questions around how markets are built and how we transact through them, but these questions can come second.
“At the end of the day the physics are what we’ve got to get right and maintain the effectiveness of our grid,” he says.
“Once we’ve figured that out, then we can start to optimise by getting people to transact and trade over marketplaces.”
In terms of how the energy industry can move forward and overcome the current roadblocks we’re seeing, Phil says the no-regrets option for everyone right now is to ensure the devices we’re attaching to the grid are of a certain capability that allows us a future of flexibility.
“Exactly how do we do that and by what rules we manage them, where do we run the marketplaces and so on, there are lots of things we don’t know,” he says. “But that shouldn’t stop us from progressing forward and building some of the underlying technology platforms to ensure that as this grows over the next five to 10 years and we have a solid base – a reliable grid that isn’t pushing prices up and artificially inflating prices.
“And it isn’t a reason to stop connecting renewables into our system.”
According to Phil, that’s first and foremost why taking those first steps to make sure we’ve got proper connectivity to distributed resources is a really sensible move for governments, for utilities and for the wider industry.