SWTCH Energy to lead new blockchain-based EV charging pilot

With several project partners and a focus on multi-tenant buildings, the initiative seeks to reduce the cost of EV-charging transactions and enhance grid efficiency

For the next three years, a pair of office buildings in downtown Toronto will be a testing ground for two unique technologies — one that turns electric vehicles into a power source for building residents, and another that tracks that energy usage and billing with cutting-edge blockchain technology.

While it sounds futuristic, this scenario could soon be commonplace once electric vehicle numbers in Canada reach a critical mass.

“At the end of the day it’s really making energy more flexible,” says Carter Li, CEO and cofounder of SWTCH Energy, in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “The end goal is to use batteries and EVs as a tool to make our grid more efficient, make it more cost effective and reduce greenhouse gases.”

Batteries on wheels

This demonstration — a partnership between SWTCH, which makes the charging platform, and Opus One Solutions, an intelligent energy software developer — shines a light on some of the possibilities that will come with widespread electrification of transportation. All it requires is the realization that EVs aren’t just cars, but batteries on wheels with the potential for an array of useful applications when they aren’t being driven to provide power and supplement the energy grid.

In this case, building owners and property managers are realizing that they can use building energy management systems and vehicle-to-building (V2B) bidirectional charging to tap into the underutilized potential sitting in their parking lots.

Actions that businesses or multi-tenant buildings take “behind the meter” — that is to say electricity generation or consumption actions taken within the building — can translate into meaningful difference for energy efficiency and lowering emissions if they are done with the right supports and infrastructure, explains Li, whose company aims its services at multi-tenant buildings or businesses that want behind-the-meter V2B solutions.

For Opus One, which provides software and energy management solutions to utilities and other managers of distributed energy assets, the project represents an opportunity to “expand our transactive energy platform into the world of electric vehicles and to enable decarbonization in the transportation industry,” says Hari Subramaniam, chief of strategic growth with Opus One.

“If there is no third-party source like the utilities to verify, it’s hard for customers to know if that [charge or credit] is true or not. That’s where blockchain comes in”

Carter Li, CEO, SWTCH Energy

Making the case

SWTCH’s testing grounds are at the PwC and the IBI towers in downtown Toronto. There, they are installing “transactive energy networks” to facilitate bi-directional charging between plugged in vehicles and the building. The pilot, which is the first blockchain-based V2B program in Ontario, will run until 2023.

SWTCH and Opus One are getting additional technical support from a team at the University of Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science. Natural Resources Canada has invested $1 million into the project as well.

The premise of the program is straightforward: when a vehicle is plugged in and draws energy through the building’s facilities the car owner will be debited, as they would at any other charging point, via the SWTCH app. When the equation flips though, and it’s the building drawing power from the vehicles rather than the grid — say during times of peak demand when rates are high — the vehicle owner will be credited based on the competitive price of electricity at that time.

Vehicle owners can choose to opt-in to have their EVs drawn from and will pre-negotiate their per kilowatt hour rate. And that is where blockchain becomes a must.

“These kind of transactions that occur within a building are not monitored or recorded by a utility because utilities don’t have any visibility within the inside of a building,” says Li. “If there is no third-party source like the utilities to verify, it’s hard for customers to know if that [charge or credit] is true or not. That’s where blockchain comes in. It’s like an automated ledger system that keeps track of all transactions. There is no way to fudge those numbers.”

A self-contained energy source

While the idea of all buildings ever being entirely energy self-sufficient could be a reach, Li is confident that with the right best practices many multi-tenant buildings could offset their costs.

“A lot of these buildings are looking at the concept of buying electricity at night when it’s really cheap, storing it up and selling it to their residents at a higher price, but still at a lower price than the price of the utilities during the day,” explains Li.

And in addition to EV drivers being able to sell power from their vehicle to the building, tenants could also have the option to buy power from the building, which is generating its own and storing it in fleet vehicles.

Some buildings already have distributed energy resources (DERs) or are actively looking to acquire. The most common DER, at least in urban centres, is rooftop solar panels. And while having a solar garden makes sense on sunny days, there are inevitably going to be down times and an energy gap will need to be bridged.

“When you have batteries that are paired with renewable energy, during the times when there is a lot of energy it gets stored and then can be used after,” says Li. “It becomes kind of a buffer to even out all these renewable resources that are becoming more prevalent.”

Moving from idea to reality

The blockchain smart-charging program marks one of the first real-world applications of a largely theoretical technology. It’s SWTCH and Opus’s hope that the data they gather from this project will help them strengthen the argument for other businesses to adopt the same or similar models to give net benefit to everyone from building residents to utilities.

“There is a lot of power that is created within the buildings themselves, but it doesn’t belong to the grid. The idea is that the people who live in these buildings can use the energy,” says Li.

“You are going to have an abundance of battery reserve storage that’s just sitting there — most people only drive their vehicles 10 per cent of the time. You use these EVs to reduce peak energy demand. There are all these things that you can use to make the grid more stable.”