Tech giant IBM has made no secret of its big plans for blockchain technology, a digital ledger system that began life as the tracking and accounting mechanism attached to the alternative currency Bitcoin.
Some of those aspirations came more sharply into focus in late August, when it convinced nine giant food companies — including Unilever, Dole, Tyson and Kroger — to collaborate on potential applications for tracing the provenance of food.
“Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system — equivalent to shining a light on food ecosystem participants that will further promote responsible actions and behaviors,” said Frank Yiannas, vice president for food safety at Walmart, another alliance member, which has been testing it since last year.
Why the hype? At its heart, you can think of blockchain as a decentralized database, one that can manage contracts that reinforce all sorts of conditions. Information about each touchpoint is appended automatically — you can think of it as an electronic paper trail that is very difficult to hack.
Venture capital activity related to the sector during the second quarter of 2017, was up 89 percent over the prior year, according to CBInsights. And new pilot projects, proofs-of-concept and other experiments involving blockchain and its potential applications for sustainable business practices are being launched virtually every week.
Much of the action is focused on ideas for a distributed marketplace tied to renewable energy — the closely watched Brooklyn Microgrid and an open source technology collaboration being managed by the Energy Web Foundation are two high-profile examples. (The latter has the support of at least 10 huge energy companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil.) As the IBM initiative suggests, there is an appreciable amount of interest in models for supply chain provenance and traceability; elsewhere the focus is on new transaction systems, such as the one Toyota is imagining for managing self-driving vehicles.
Pilots, proofs-of-concept and other experiments involving blockchain and its potential applications for sustainable business practices are being launched virtually every week.
“We remain skeptical about the ability for blockchain to replace existing non-digital transaction processes without clearer demonstrations of benefits to a wide range of users,” noted Cornerstone Capital Group, in a September analysis of activity. “However, blockchain is gaining traction within communities and marketplaces focused on the technology-enabled.”
In that spirit, here is a list of five more experiments we’re adding to our watch list, along with the ones we’ve already referenced above.
This blockchain-enabled mobility service was announced earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show by automotive technology company ZF and Swiss financial services giant UBS. As of mid-September, IBM is on board with its cloud services might, which could help the idea scale far more quickly.
Among the applications being tested are automated transactions for electric vehicle charging, models for sharing vehicles (including fleets of self-driving ones), and behind-the-scenes toll services that could help ease urban traffic congestion (no stopping at barriers). Services such as Car eWallet also could have implications for how automobile insurance policies are managed.
The theme behind this British startup is energy efficiency and trading — its aim is to use blockchain-managed incentives and principals to reward behavior that helps cut consumption. Helmed by an executive team that includes former techies from Google and Microsoft, the company already is collecting data about more than 1,100 sites. There’s likely to be a consumer play: Energi Mine is working on services that might reward an individual for doing things such as taking public transportation or opting for energy-efficient appliances, as just two examples.
Although the details are still pretty sketchy, Greeneum is working on a plan to use blockchain technology along with artificial intelligence software to create an energy marketplace that represents both large electricity generators as well as individuals or businesses looking to buy or sell solar power.
The team behind this venture has a track record: They were behind the creation of SolarCoin, a crytocurrency created in January 2014 as an incentive structure for small-scale and community solar power generators. Greeneum’s influence will touch sites in Europe, Cyprus, Israel and Africa.
The strategists behind ImpactPPA have been involved in developing renewable energy projects in 35 countries. Their vision is to use blockchain technology and “smart contracts” to help raise proceeds for installations in emerging markets such as Somalia or Haiti — ImpactPPA has a potential development pipeline of more than 200 megawatts, according to its marketing materials.
“Decentralizing the access to capital for renewable energy projects around the world is designed to dramatically speed up the time it takes to get products and solutions on the ground and operational,” said ImpactPPA CEO Dan Bates, in a press release. “For too long, these countries have relied upon external decision-making authorities and legacy finance communities with traditional financiers that often overlook the needs of these nations.”
The De Ceuvel development, an urban incubator for cleantech concepts in Amsterdam, in September launched an initiative to test applications for a blockchain-based token called the Jouliette as part of applications being tested across a solar-based microgrid.
In theory, the project is similar to the Brooklyn microgrid, using blockchain tokens as a means of allowing owners of photovoltaic installations to sell the energy generated by them on a peer-to-peer basis independent of the centralized grid. The initiative is a collaboration between Spectral, a spinoff of sustainable business consulting firm Metabolic, and Alliander, one of the largest electric grid operators in the Netherlands.
“In the coming months, the De Ceuvel community will be experimenting with the Jouliette in practice, and engaging in a number of user experience design sessions to take the platform to the next level, together with system developers,” said Spectral CEO Philip Gladek.
Targeting a January launch date, the Poseidon partnership — essentially a carbon credit marketplace — is helmed by Laszlo Giricz, a long-time technology consultant with banks including JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and UBS.
The strategic partners include Ecosphere+ (part of the Althelia Climate Fund), which will provide the credits, and non-profit Stellar.org, which develops an open source distributed ledger system that will become the foundation for the Poseidon platform.
There’s a consumer-facing twist to what’s being planned. For example, a coffee shop could use Poseidon to sell a “carbon-positive latte,” using a portion of the transaction to fund carbon tokens. “As momentum builds, Poseidon’s blockchain technology presents an opportunity for early involvement in a transparent, accountable carbon market that can provide both financial and ecological returns, offering a host of benefits to natural ecosystems and the habitats and livelihoods they support,” Giricz said at the launch during Climate Week last month.
The environmental fin-tech company is creating a marketplace that uses blockchain as the transaction mechanism for trading and verifying carbon credits and, in the future, natural capital assets such as water rights, renewable energy or biodiversity credits.
The initiative brings together technology company EnVision (which works with the likes of Microsoft, Allianz Insurance and Intuit), and blockchain specialists ConsenSys and Alchemist Ventures. While many organizations sell credits for environmental mitigation and to offset their carbon footprints, the Veridium marketplace aims to create a more transparent method of buying and trading high-quality ones, according to the group’s marketing materials.
“By creating a transparent pricing mechanism, Veridium will offer the market unprecedented liquidity and fungibiity for natural capital assets and, in the process, provide a new vehicle for corporations to embed environmental replacements into the cost of their products through investments in natural capital,” said Veridium Labs co-founder Todd Lemons.
The first set of tokens that Veridium intends to sell (sometime this fall) will be for verified Triple Gold REDD+ credits related to the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Borneo, Indonesia.
The Sun Exchange
The company, which recently established a headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, will use blockchain as the means of allowing people and organizations to invest in a portfolio of small solar projects in emerging markets. Starting in November, the exchange will start selling tokens that will be used to crowdfund its installations. The technology will be used to lease the generated power back to individuals, schools, hospitals and businesses in the communities where they are based — generating income for exchange members.
One recent campaign helped install 3,780 solar cells on a wildlife center in South Africa (the project’s capacity is a relatively modest 17 kilowatts). The organization has five projects so far, all in Africa.