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Power Ledger resets in 2019: Closes office, aims for 'scale', buys solar farm

Source:
https://www.afr.com/news/power-ledger-resets-in-2019-closes-office-aims-for-scale-buys-solar-farm-20190129-h1alld

Power Ledger, the Perth-based energy trading start-up facing questions about what its blockchain technology brings to the market, has reset its goals for 2019, aiming for scale from its commercial trials, buying solar and battery assets and shutting its Melbourne office to conserve resources.
Chairman Jemma Green said Power Ledger closed its two-person Melbourne office just before Christmas because the market is proving a harder sell on the application of blockchain to energy markets and the company wants to focus on markets it believes are poised to deliver scale more quickly such as Japan and Thailand. One of the staff was made redundant and the other became an "ambassador".
Power Ledger's self-described mission is to help more people get more out of solar panels and batteries and speed the clean energy revolution, and the company won billionaire Richard Branson's "extreme tech challenge" in October.
But some people are sceptical about the business case and although it has secured trial deployments with energy companies from Australia to New Zealand, Thailand, Japan and the US, it has failed to convert most of these into commercial rollouts.
Dr Green said Power Ledger aimed to build a just announced relationship with a Japanese solar installer, Sharing Energy, from an initial 100 households to 55,000 households by the end of next year, and to start peer-to-peer energy trading over its blockchain platform this November. At an average of 5 kilowatts for rooftop solar in Japan, it would amount to 275 MW of solar in aggregate, which is ambitious.
As well, the board has set management a goal of increasing the current solar capacity of about 600 kilowatts covered by a Bangkok energy trading trial in partnership with BCPG, a Thai renewable energy firm, by 4 MW in the March quarter and another 12 MW in the June quarter. Thailand is Southeast Asia's largest renewable energy market.
Agile markets
"We are focusing on where we can get scale in 2019," Dr Green said. "We think a lot of scale can come out of places like Thailand where they are more agile."
Power Ledger's original focus was on using its blockchain platform to trade energy peer-to-peer – or neighbour to neighbour. But the platform can also be used to finance and "fractionalise" – or split up – ownership of assets such as solar farms, batteries and carbon credits, and to create secondary markets in the ownership units.
The creation of these ownership units is known as "asset germination" in the blockchain world and the units are known as "tokens". Power Ledger has bought a small 250 kilowatt solar array and a 670 kilowatt hour battery to trial this aspect of the technology, and is talking to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission about the idea.
Investment in these assets has been largely restricted to the rich because they can't easily be traded in a liquid secondary market, Dr Green said. "They'll be available for everyday people to invest in them and trade in a secondary market."
Another trial with Silicon Valley Power – owned by the City of Santa Clara – aims to charge electric vehicles from solar panels on car parks during the day to smooth out the "duck curve" impact of solar on the grid – where demand for electricity from the grid plunges as solar rooftop output cranks up in the morning and then falls in the late afternoon. It is also part of a trial to make California's unwieldy Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) scheme – that gives credits to low emissions cars – cheaper and easier to access for ordinary customers.
Dr Green said Power Ledger aims to bring other partners into this trial. "We see big opportunities in the carbon markets around issuance and trading of carbon credits."
Peer-to-peer energy trading trials in Fremantle and Auckland have not led to commercial deployments, but Power Ledger has just begun another trial with Pennsylvania wholesaler American Power Net and is also trialling a small "virtual power plant" trial with KEPCO, Japan's largest privately owned power company. Vicinity Shopping Centres is another trial partner.
Related
Power Ledger's Oz-first Bitcoin IPO surges to $34m
By Ben Potter
Cashed up, but why blockchain?
Power Ledger raised about $34 million in Australia's first homegrown "initial coin offering" in October 2017 and has since ridden the ups and downs of the Bitcoin and Ethereum markets to settle at US8¢, just below its US8.3¢ issue price. Its market capitalisation soared to $US652 million at the peak of Bitcoin euphoria in January 2018 and has fallen to $US31.6 million, according to Coinmarketcap.com.
Dr Green won't say how much of its original cash Power Ledger retains but says it is enough to take the company "through to commercialisation".
Blockchain technology underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, whose ups and downs have fuelled scepticism about whether the technology does anything that a conventional database can't do.
Dr Green says people ask her the same question but insists that blockchain is "one facet of our business" and can bring benefits to a complex market such as energy.
Related
Vicinity connects solar to blockchain in energy pilot
Vicinity connects solar to blockchain in energy pilot
By Nick Lenaghan
"Managing and storing energy is difficult and it takes time to get the market up to speed with what the proposition is and what the problems are that blockchain might solve."

Related
How to make and lose $2b on blockchain By Aaron Patrick

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How to make and lose $2b on blockchain

Source: https://www.afr.com/business/energy/how-to-make-and-lose-2-billion-on-blockchain-20181212-h1914w

In the wild world of blockchain pioneers, Power Ledger founder Jemma Green is a rock star.

The former investment banker oversaw the biggest initial coin offering in Australian history, was chosen as EY's fintech entrepreneur of the year, and won an international start-up competition overseen by Sir Richard Branson. She even stepped in as Perth's mayor last year.

Her two-and-half-year-old company promises to revolutionise the global power industry. Power Ledger's blockchain tokens, an unregulated, computer-based form of money, allow individuals to trade electricity between themselves, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Power Ledger founder Jemma Green won the Extreme Tech Challenge in 2018, which was judged at Richard Branson's private island in the Caribbean. Supplied

Green created a virtual currency worth more than $2 billion at its peak. Yet her trading system has a tiny take-up, was rejected by the one big electricity retailer that tested it, and a government-funded trial hasn't met the expectations of some involved.

Over-hyped?
Now, some experienced tech and green-industry figures are posing an awkward question: does Power Ledger epitomise the over-hyping of blockchain?

"I'm a software engineer by training, have been mucking about online for 35-plus years and am an energy geek," says Melbourne green-energy investor Simon Holmes a Court. "I still don't understand what valuable problem they are trying to solve.

"The basic infrastructure to manage transactions at massive scale already exists – [there's] no need to use Blockchain."

Blockchain, which is the basis for Bitcoin and similar currencies, was invented in 2008 by an unknown person. Despite billions invested in the technology, it is unclear if there are any profitable blockchain businesses not directly involved in cryptocurrencies.

"We've seen a bunch of profitable blockchain applications, but all have been focused on obtaining and trading crypto and their profitability is generally linked to prices – think miners, exchanges and wallet providers," says John Henderson, a venture capitalist at AirTree Ventures.

The blockchain frenzy
Part of blockchain's popularity is as much ideological as financial. Encrypted databases spread around the internet, controlled by no one, blockchains represent a technological rebellion against the centralisation of economic power in governments and central banks, whom many hold responsible for global financial crisis.

"Blockchain has been seen as a nirvana – its ideological roots are decentralisation and removal of institutions," says Peter Williams, a partner at Deloitte Consulting who specialises in technology. "The zealots are into self-sovereign ID, everything decentralised and the end of institutions."

Last year, the blockchain enthusiasm drove a global investment wave. Some 1225 initial coin offerings, the blockchain-equivalent of IPOs or sharemarket floats, raised $US7.5 billion through the sale of blockchain tokens or coins, much of it from individual investors, according to the ICO Data website. The technology was predicted to change dozens of industries, from shipping to healthcare.

In Australia, Green was at the forefront of the movement. Her company promised to apply blockchain's anti-authority ethos to challenging big electricity monopolies.

@elonmusk I am told you might be interested in us at @PowerLedger_io we do blockchain energy for democratisation of power & citizen utilies

— Dr Jemma Green (@msjemmagreen) September 15, 2017
Green had been in London for 11 years. After starting as a trading assistant at the Royal Bank of Scotland, she joined JP Morgan, where she assessed the environmental and social risk of new loans and shares.

Going places in Perth
In 2013 she returned to Perth, where her father had bred and trained racehorses. She began to ascend the city's business and social hierarchy.

Green enrolled in a PhD at Curtin University, consulted under the brand The Green Enterprise, and ran for the City of Perth council. She joined the advisory board of One Million Women, a female climate change group based in Sydney.

Within four years she was deputy mayor and head of one of the Perth's hottest start-ups. She was tweeting Elon Musk, trying to get him interested. (He didn't reply.) "The motto that I live by is 'anything's possible'," she said at the time.

Why @elonmusk Has His Eye On This Aussie #Blockchain #Energy Company @PowerLedger_io #ICO #POWRtoken

— Crypto Guru 2018 (@ICO_Market_Guru) October 6, 2017
Green had hatched a plan worthy of her motto: cash in on the bitcoin boom by creating one billion virtual-currency tokens.

Her pitch was almost impossible for outsiders to understand. The ambition was unmistakable.

"The Power Ledger Platform is a trustless, transparent and interoperable energy trading platform that supports an ever-expanding suite of energy applications, with an exchangeable frictionless energy trading token, Sparkz," Power Ledger's 28-page company manifesto said.

Sounds like an IPO
It sounded like an IPO. It wasn't. Instead, the tokens gave investors the right to use Power Ledger's technology at some point in the future. The weren't entitled to any profits.


In Power Ledger's market individuals use blockchain tokens to buy and sell electricity generated from solar panels. Vicky Hughson

Most companies raising capital use stockbrokers or bankers. Power Ledger turned to what are known in the blockchain world as "bounty hunters".

One-and-a-half million POWR tokens were set aside for individuals to promote the sale on social media. Dozens of newspaper and blog articles were published. The Huffington Post profiled the company and compared blockchain with the early internet.

Articles exaggerated Power Ledger's achievements. The company was often described as operating a retail electricity market, and sounded liked an eBay or Amazon for solar power. In reality, it was building the technology and didn't have a commercial market operating.

Twitter was flooded with posts. Some claimed Musk had asked the company for advice. Fake accounts were rewarded with POWR tokens for their promotional work.

"Some of our bounty group were professional bounty hunters chasing tokens because it's what they do," Power Ledger said in a post a few weeks after the token sale. "Some were bots reporting an astounding 5000 likes of our social media output in a single 24-hour period."

Transparency needed
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission disapproves of people spruiking investments without disclosing their interest.

"Certainly in my view it is not good practice for individuals to be promoting ICOs and receiving a benefit if they are not transparent about the benefits they are receiving," says John Price, an ASIC commissioner.

Peter Williams, the Deloitte partner, goes further. These are "classic market manipulation techniques," he says.


Some experienced tech and green-industry figures are posing an awkward question: does Power Ledger epitomise the over-hyping of blockchain?

Asked why Power Ledger used bounty hunters, Green says she isn't familiar with the phrase. "I don't know what you are talking about," she says.

Later, in an email, Greens says Power Ledger, unlike some other blockchain companies, works hard to be transparent. "We ran the ICO through a corporate structure, through our proprietary limited business," she says. "We have tax exposure. We had a proof of concept before going to market. And we did all of those things because we realise we need to bring legitimacy to our space and the ICO and crypto space more generally."

Perfect timing
In almost perfect timing, Power Ledger raised $34 million a couple of months before bitcoin peaked. No other Australian blockchain company was as popular.

Initially, the tokens were a great investment. Sold by Power Ledger for US8.38¢ each, within five weeks they were trading at $US1.79. In a year and half, a company with fewer than 30 staff had created $2.4 billion in wealth.

Tokens allocated to Green, other private investors and key staff were worth $360 million. The former traders' assistant had been hit by what is known in the tech circles as the "money truck".

Green became a bona fide tech celebrity. She turned up at the World Economic Forum in Davos to help launch the Global Blockchain Business Council. EY named Green as one of its entrepreneurs of the year.

The accounting firm had fast-tracked her through the process. Contenders in other categories were required to go through applications, interviews, presentations over many months. Green's name was simply forwarded to the judges with a few others.

A market that doesn't exist
The adulation was based on Power Ledger's home-to-home trading idea, which it says is "perfect for any household, office or retailer connected to the electricity grid".


Blockchain CEO David Martin with chairman Jemma Green at their Perth office. The company issued blockchain tokens worth $2.4 billion at their peak. Trevor Collens

But the system doesn't operate outside a few pre-established trials that cover a tiny number of people. The low-cost of electricity, the ubiquity of supply and efficient exiting payment systems pose significant obstacles, critics say.

There is no way to sign up to Power Ledger's trading system. Electricity companies are needed – the Power Ledger website urges consumers to lobby them – but Origin Energy carried out a simulation and decided not to go ahead.

Asked how many buildings around the world use Power Ledger's system, Green says, "I don't know exactly off the top of my head".

Her CEO, David Martin, says the number is less than 100. All are trial sites, except for three Perth apartment buildings that were part of Green's PhD thesis. "We have never said that anyone can get on and start trading," she says.

Uneconomic trading
The government has provided $2.6 million to test the system out on some 40 houses in Fremantle. The project is billed as the first electricity market where residents can set their own prices. It is a chance for Power Ledger to fulfil its core promise to generate higher prices for solar power producers and lower prices for consumers – the classic example of an efficient market.

One participant, who asked not to be named, says the trading system isn't worth using. A former manager in the energy industry, she her own solar panels and electric car. She sells electricity to the grid for 7¢ per kilowatt, and buys it for 26¢ per kilowatt.

Using Power Ledger, she expected to trade electricity with her neighbours between 7¢ and 26¢, saving both sides money. Power Ledger takes a cut of about half a cent a kilowatt.

But the local electricity retailer and power grid, Synergy and Western Power, charge a connection fee of $3 a day to trial participants. The overhead makes trading uneconomic for her.


Initially, the tokens were a great investment. Sold by Power Ledger for US8.38¢ each, within five weeks they were trading at $US1.79. In a year and half, a company with fewer than 30 staff had created $2.4 billion in wealth.

"I was quite disappointed because I find the idea of energy trading very exiting and I really wanted to experiment with it," she says.

The project's manager, Karla Fox-Reynolds of Curtin University, says other houses are buying and selling. "They are feeling empowered and enabled to participate in the energy market," she says. The project is advertising for more recruits.

'The road is not always straight'
Any criticism about Power Ledger's small take-up rate is unfair, Green says, because it is such a young company. "The road is not always straight," she says. "I think the value of it over time will be immeasurable."

Even some blockchain boosters are sceptical. Fred Schebesta, who owns a cryptocurrency broker, says he can't see what would drive the token price up.

"I think that they will need millions or hundreds of thousands [of customers] to be viable or really take off," he says. "The value of the token holders is not well aligned to the value of the business."

Now the bitcoin boom seems to have passed, many tech industry leaders are questioning if the ICOs were an investment fad that shifted wealth rather than created it.

​"The ICO craze is and was way worse than the dot-com boom, where capital raised was at least a share of the upside and was subject to regulation," says Williams, the Deloitte partner.

After spectacularly peaking in January, POWR tokens crashed with the rest of the bitcoin market. Today they trade around 6.5¢, about 20 per cent below their issue price.


Skeptics question if blockchain is needed in the retail electricity industry, where big networks have scale, ubiquity and easy payment options. Supplied

The company continues to reward bloggers who promote the virtual currency. One of the boosters is a price-comparison website, Finder.com.au, whose owner invests in cryptocurrencies.

"Power Ledger is an ambitious project but one that nonetheless has the potential to transform the energy industry around the world," one of the site's contributors, Tim Falk, wrote last month.

Falk, who recently wrote about 2018's top carpet cleaners, has punted on POWR tokens himself.



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