The Big Interview

Solo Energy’s Ben Hill: Blockchain shaking up the energy sector

The former Tesla EMEA Vice President recently joined Ireland-based blockchain startup Solo Energy as its Commercial and Technical Advisor

Coin Rivet: When did you first get involved in the blockchain and crypto space?

Ben Hill: I started to learn of it, as many of us do, because of the hype around Bitcoin, crypto and blockchain last year. However, for business purposes, I would have to say it was during the first meeting with Mark Hamilton, CEO of Solo Energy because they were looking to get involved in peer-to-peer trading.

CR: How do you believe blockchain can help you bring about change to the world?

BH: I think throughout my entire career I’ve always changed the way that energy is being used. Whether it’s in solar power or energy storage, there is a revolution going on in the energy space in terms of distributed energy, creating new energy forms, renewable energies which are now at a lower cost and typical fossil fuels or nuclear.

So that in itself is an enormous change in the way that the world generates energy and uses it. Also, now with blockchain, the whole thing just becomes more automated, being able to create virtual power plants, which is basically a cloud-based control system of different decentralised energy generators and then activating them at any one point through signals.

That’s just a massive revolution in the way that energy can be generated, and uncontrolled, and that ultimately then comes down to more power to the people. That control also comes from the use of blockchain. The fact that one person who perhaps is generating solar on their roof but not using that energy can then sell that energy to Mr and Mrs Smith next door. That’s all automated and automatic, and then the actual transfer of that data of what’s just happened is through blockchain technology.

CR: Due to the democratisation and decentralisation qualities of blockchain, do you believe multinationals and the major energy companies feel threatened?

BH: Of course. I mean, it’s a fundamental change in who controls what. It is perceived as a threat by, let’s call them the establishment. Perhaps it is but does that mean it’s going to destroy the establishment as we know it? We’ll find out because they are also moving into this space. We see a lot of not only innovative companies like Solo Energy, picking it up and delivering services using blockchain, but also a lot of blue chip companies making moves.

CR: Is Solo Energy unique in this sector?

BH: A CEO of one of the largest energy firms in the UK told me about a year ago that blockchain would never be implemented in the industry, but look now at what Solo Energy is doing. So there have been people discussing the use of blockchain, the use of virtual power plants.

However, very few are actually doing it. The use of peer-to-peer trading amongst consumers still has some restrictions in the UK, which is what Solo Energy is sorting out. But we’re really encouraged that that’s all going to change. The future looks very positive. We may be the leaders, but there will be many who follow.

CR: How is Solo Energy going to help consumers?

BH: Typically, what we’re going to do is reduce and stabilise their bills and benefit people who’ve already made investments in solar on their roof. In the UK, for example, there are hundreds of thousands of those who will be able to manage energy to reduce significantly the electricity they buy from outside, but also be able to sell on excess power that they generate from their solar energy infrastructure. The consumer doesn’t actually have to take any action because Solo Energy will manage that whole process for them and manage those savings.

One of the first partners that we’ve worked with is Our Power, which is a non-for profit organisation in Scotland, who are providing energy to a lot of social housing and a lower income homes. One of the reasons they’re interested in us is, of course, because we can lower energy bills and we can provide reliable energy to those homeowners who not as well off as others. I think that is a critical statement, if you like, on our ability to be able to deliver reliable, lower cost energy.

Ultimately consumers are paying for the cost of energy and also the infrastructure, which somebody has to pay, but why the consumer? The cost of energy is as a consequence continually rising and that is becoming more and more concerning for homeowners and businesses.

CR: What sort of savings are we talking about?

BH: It’s difficult to give specific numbers because it’s dependent on the home, but Solo Energy can undoubtedly make a big difference through double-digit percentage savings for homeowners. There are many different variables, including location, if they have the solar energy infrastructure.

CR: Which areas does Solo Energy currently cover?

BH: We will undoubtedly be across the UK, so we’re set up a for that, and we have scattered projects, although we are predominantly in Scotland. However, today we are managing batteries in different locations including in Ireland, where we are working in a housing project.

CR: Nationally first and then internationally?

BH: Our business model is certainly expandable and usable in other countries. Other countries have different regulations of course, so things like aggregation are not always possible in some countries like Spain, but many of these things are changing with the new market design for energy coming through the European Parliament that will start to have effects on European consumers in the next couple of years.

That’s all very positive for our business model. Firstly, we want to grow in the UK and Ireland and then we can start trading energy as well, which is again, part of the reason that the consumer will be able to have a lower cost base.

CR: How many customers or households is Solo Energy currently serving?

BH: We’re still at less than 100, but in the very short-term we expect to be in the thousands.

CR: How big is this new market Solo Energy has created?

BH: I expect that within five to ten years every home in the UK and in Europe will have a battery of some sort in their home.

CR: Can we safely say the market Solo Energy is aiming at is worth hundreds of billions of dollars?

BH: Yes, absolutely. We are seeing that the market is growing very quickly. Already many homes in the US, Europe and Australia are moving away from traditional energy companies and into storing electricity in batteries and generating solar energy. Today, energy companies are charging so much more for power than is acceptable but the homeowner doesn’t perceive that because they pay a flat rate.

Companies charge more during peak demand. For example, you may pay significantly more for energy between 3:00 and 8:00 in the evening. Perhaps substantially more than it would cost from 3:00 to 10:00 in the morning, when demand is not so high.

With batteries and smart meters, consumers can move away from those high-cost peak moments by using stored energy. The use of cells allows homeowners to use that lower-cost energy or free energy from the sun. That’s the reason for the big boom in batteries being used in homes and businesses in countries like the UK.

CR: What do you see as Solo Energy’s biggest challenge?

BH: The biggest challenge is going to be the execution of the significant roll-out because essentially we are offering the batteries for the homes and the vehicle to grid bi-directional energy charges at no cost to homeowners. Being able to roll-out against the demand and execute at a high level of service is going to be a challenge for Solo Energy but one which we are certainly looking forward. And to be able to expand continually and continuously stay ahead of what will be our much bigger competitors, who are basically the establishment, to provide customers with efficient, reliable, low-cost energy.

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