French utility Engie, which has spent some €1.5 billion on its digital transformation since 2016, plans to use intelligent connectivity to help it undergo a massive transition: morphing from a company that generates and delivers electricity, gas and various renewables, to one that gradually moves away from producing energy to focus on services.
Getting there requires mastering a slew of disruptive technologies including blockchain, artificial intelligence, smart power grids, inspection drones and community energy cooperatives, to name just a few. What’s more, it has to excel at collecting, analyzing and leveraging the huge amounts of data that faster networks like 5G — fifth generation wireless broadband- will enable.
“You can’t innovate today without thinking about the data,” says Etienne Gehain, digital innovation officer at Engie, one of the largest companies based in France, with more than 150,000 employees and more than €65 billion in revenue in 2017.
While fully achieving its goals could take years, the wide range of disruptive technologies that are converging are starting to make the kind of personalized new services Engie envisions possible. People and companies are installing smart devices that collect rich data on energy consumption. IoT devices with sensors are constantly gathering and transmitting information from other environments, such as hospitals and airports. Network protocols like 5G can support an infinitely larger number of always-connected devices and artificial intelligence allows processing and analysis of enormous amounts of data.
“All those technologies allow us to know more about our clients, better anticipate their needs, and tailor our service offering more specifically to each client,” says Gehain. “We are already radically different from what we were before.”
In 2018, for example, Engie announced digital IoT (Internet of Things) and remote monitoring platforms that will provide real-time data reporting and insights on facilities such as hospitals, hotels or airports, to help improve energy efficiency. Its digital initiatives also include an integrated building management system that provides real-time data on all equipment and conditions such as room temperature and air quality, and digitalization of facility management processes, through computerized management solutions.
To help further its innovation agenda, Engie appointed a chief data officer in 2018 whose role is to ensure the company’s culture embraces its future as a data-driven organization. It’s part of a broader effort that involves bringing innovation in from the outside.
Connecting With Startups
Engie is working with startups in a variety of ways. In 2014, the company established a venture capital wing called ENGIE New Ventures, which scouts and invests in startups that enable distributed energy, connected homes, smart cities, green power, and mobility.. Over the past five years, the VC division has invested €65 million into 20 companies specializing in technologies such as robots, drones, blockchain, AI, virtual reality and cybersecurity.One of those companies is San Francisco-based Streetlights Data, which received $2 million in funding from Engie. The company is targeting transportation planning and urban mobility with an analytics tool powered by trillions of GPS and cellular data points to create greater efficiencies and energy savings. The Streetlight platform collects data about the travel patterns of cars, bikes and pedestrians to help transportations planners make more informed decisions. “The more data sets you are able to coalesce and index and make work together, the better the insights,” says Martin Morzynski, Streetlight’s vice-president of marketing and products.
Engie is also forging partnerships with startups. It is collaborating with Amsterdam-based Quby to develop a smart thermostat called boxx for the Belgium market. The companies are also testing a version of the technology for the U.K. market called Toon which serves as a “smart platform” for a variety connected devices. Another example is a partnership with Texas based Grid4C to leverage the startup’s artificial intelligence tools to enhance smart home services.
The energy giant is also making acquisitions to enter new businesses. Its 2017 acquisition of Netherlands-based EVBox, for example, helped it expand into the business of charging electric cars: it now controls the Dutch startup’s network of 40,000 electric vehicle charging stations across 20 countries.
Embracing Blockchain And Creating Its Own cryptocurrency
And Engie is innovating in-house.. The company’s entrepreneurship program gave birth to TEO, which stands for The Energy Origin. Started by a handful of employees, TEO has created a web platform that allows for the tracking and verification of green energy use.
With TEO Engie is targeting companies with renewable energy goals. In the past companies had to rely on incomplete or unreliable energy consumption data. Using blockchain, TEO can issue tracking certificates every day that verify the origin of energy being consumed.
The next step is to extend these certificates so renewable producers can connect more directly with consumers who want such verification. In the future, TEO hopes to enable buying and selling of power within geographic communities, like when one neighbor’s solar panels generate excess power that can be sold to someone else down the street.
But one of the major challenges is to insert trustworthy data into the blockchain. To that end Engie has partnered with Ledger, a French startup to develop what it claims is the energy sector’s first secured, autonomous and blockchain agnostic “oracle” (a hardware device that will be compatible with most blockchains).
The so-called hardware oracle will measure data at the source of green energy production (such as wind turbines, solar panels or hydropower) and safely record in the blockchain to be used for decentralized applications.
Engie says it is aiming for the solution to become the cornerstone of all future energy services using blockchain, including energy traceability, peer-to-peer trading and crowdfunding.
The device will be able to connect different blockchains and several decentralized applications at the same time. As security is key to having trustworthy data, the device will include a secure element and an anti-tampering solution.
“Blockchain is an evolution of the cloud, but with trust in it,” Gehain says. “This is important because in energy, we can talk about the various use cases, but many involve a number of different entities that all need to agree on the same set of data. And blockchain is well suited for situations where the number of parties is large and they all have to agree on the same set of data.”
Gehain has joined the board of the Energy Web Foundation, which is developing a common protocol for energy-related blockchain services. Engie co-founded Blockchain Studios, a spinoff that is creating tools to make it easier for companies to build services using distributed ledger technologies. And Engie has even experimented with creating its own cryptocurrency, Sungie, as a way to possibly create incentives around energy production and consumption.
For Gehain, blockchain is a critical component in harnessing intelligent connectivity to reinvent Engie’s business.
“Even if we don’t provide the energy ourselves, if we just manage the flow between two parties, the blockchain is very useful,” he says. “People don’t even have to trust us because they can verify this information themselves. And that’s fine for us. Fundamentally, we will care for the same part of the world. We will provide energy for the world but the way we will do it will certainly be different.”
Startups Working With Engie:
WHAT THEY DO: Makes secure hardware wallets that allow people to store their Bitcoin and Ethereum holdings offline without fear of being hacked. It is partnering with Engie on a hardware device to measure data at the source of green energy production (such as wind turbines, solar panels or hydropower) and safely record it in the blockchain.
WHAT THEY DO: An Engie spin-off, it develops tools which make it easier for third parties to develop blockchain-based services.
WHAT THEY DO: Processes geospatial data points to improve transportation and urban mobility.
WHAT THEY DO: A smart platform that gives consumers control over the energy usage, comfort and security of their homes.
WHAT THEY DO: Uses data to optimize IoT hardware and software for industrial companies.
WHAT THEY DO: Uses artificial intelligence to deliver greater insights from smart meters and other IoT devices.