Transitioning Toward an Energy Democracy

One MEM student talks about his innovative work with Power Ledger and the Clean Energy Blockchain Network.

By Muhammad Asad Khan

Before I came to Northwestern and the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program, I spent six years in the energy industry implementing utility scale energy efficiency projects at a power complex in Pakistan. I knew I wanted to continue in the energy industry, and Northwestern Engineering has not only prepared me to do that, but it’s also given me opportunities to work on projects I simply couldn't anywhere else.

Muhammad Asad KhanThis past winter, I took NUVention: Energy, an entrepreneurial course taught by MEM Director Mark Werwath. It was through that class that I met Mark Johnson, who is the Chief Evangelist for the Clean Energy Blockchain Network.

Johnson's Clean Energy Blockchain Network recently partnered with Power Ledger to measure and verify renewable energy blockchain efficacy on the Northwestern University campus, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved with the project, which is the group’s first commercial deployment in the United States.

Traditionally, energy flow has been one-way from large centralized power generators to distant load centers. This project is completely different. Power Ledger and the Clean Energy Blockchain Network enables peer-to-peer (P2P) energy trading of clean electrons in a dynamic marketplace, driven by the users themselves. In other words, this allows energy prosumers to trade excess electrons not needed with consumers who need them, meaning they can monetize their clean energy assets.

Now, there is no way to distinguish between an electron generated from fossil-fuel, solar array or any other technology. The workaround for that is what is known as a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC), which signifies one megawatt hour of clean energy generated through an eligible renewable energy source and entitles the certificate holder to trade in the market. However, the current process involves independent auditing and verification process from third parties. Our platform avoids that layer of bureaucracy and leverages the immutable distributed ledger and smart contracts feature of blockchain.

Never before has an individual user been able to look at energy as an investment opportunity. Our platform also offers shared ownership through crowdfunding events known as ‘Asset germination’ as well as the trading of renewable assets. This reinforces the idea of local community participation in creating a zero-carbon future while generating ROIs proportional to their stake.

During my time in MEM, I’ve been exposed to the various dynamics of the energy industry and have been focused on future industry trends, customer pain points and technology commercialization. This project is a natural extension of the classroom environment and has allowed me to interact with customers, stakeholders and regulators. I feel privileged to be at the intersection of cutting-edge technology and business-model innovation.

To have this project be successfully implemented, I’m hoping to focus on customer pain points and turning them into actionable intelligence. Our goal is to act as a bridge between customers and the platform in order to simplify the on-boarding process. This includes generating metrics that help customers understand the value of the network as well as collecting customer feedback to continuously improve the cycle and workflow.

Looking forward, there also is a major opportunity to integrate machine learning and artificial intelligence principles to enhance the platform's capabilities and minimize user input in an improved self-regulating environment.  

I look forward to this amazing learning opportunity at the intersection of data analytics, blockchain and machine learning, and it wouldn't have been possible without MEM.