Reality check

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Blockchain still has to prove its worth at scale for energy and commodity trading, with issues such as cost, privacy and liability all potential deal-breakers.

Probably the biggest challenge facing all industry-level blockchain trading projects is simply achieving the critical mass of participation needed to make using a new system commercially viable. Companies that already have procedures in place – however inefficient – will not save money if they start using parallel systems, and yet they are unlikely to commit large volumes to a new system until they are confident it works and enough of their counterparties are on it.

Without critical mass, costs per transaction will be higher and efficiency gains limited. Another risk identified by European power industry association Eurelectric is that a blockchain’s security remains unproven until it is big enough to be worth trying to hack. So while scaling up improves the efficiency and viability of a project, it may also increase its risk of attack.

Another key concern is the privacy of the data involved. Most, if not all, of the commodity blockchains being trialed are private, permissioned distributed ledgers. Participants on these blockchains need permission to join, typically from the consortium or companies that set them up. This makes sense in an industry where competitive advantage often lies in being able to exploit price arbitrages over product specifications, location and time.

You don’t want your suppliers or buyers, let alone your competitors, to have access to transaction data that can be used to uncover your trading strategies. Blockchain developers like R3, Hyperledger and Vakt all stress that their systems can be configured so that only the counterparties involved have access to the transaction data, with all data fully encrypted. While a big part of the blockchain mantra is that it is a secure system, companies may need a lot of reassurance before transferring their confidential trade data on to a blockchain platform in viably large quantities.

Transparency threat

Blockchain’s ability to create real time records of location and ownership of commodities could greatly increase transparency across the supply chain. The immutable digital record of ownership could facilitate securitization of commodities in storage and in transit, potentially revolutionizing the way capital is deployed across the industry.

But it also poses a significant threat to current actors in the market. Many of those involved in pilot projects are the existing industry players, like banks and traders. They may be involved to see what the risk is to their current business model, reserving judgment on actually committing to a blockchain system.

A system that successfully cuts costs, for example, also lowers barriers to entry, potentially bringing in more competitors to challenge the incumbents and their margins.

Legal headaches

Then there are the legal issues, such as which law should govern a blockchain contract that can exist virtually on a computer or a cloud located anywhere in the world? Who is liable for mistakes in a private decentralized network?

Other issues include defining the legal status of a smart contract which executes automatically according to a set of pre-defined rules. Is it a legal person or a contract? Is the programmer of the smart contract liable for its operation if it executes automatically?

These are problems for companies, regulators and governments to resolve, and the answers may be different in different jurisdictions, leading to legal interoperability problems.

Many different blockchain platforms developing in many different ways could also lead to system interoperability problems. Agreeing to common industry standards is the usual way to avoid this, but the pace of technological change could make it particularly challenging in this sector.

AI, machine learning

Blockchain also is not the only game in town. At a day-long digital electricity conference in Copenhagen in May 2018, the possibilities and rewards of artificial intelligence and machine learning dominated the presentations and discussion, with blockchain only mentioned in a question from the oor late in the afternoon.

The London-based Vakt consortium, which is developing a blockchain post-trade reconciliation service for the oil markets initially, is opting for an open source system to be able to respond to technological and market changes.

It is also limiting the blockchain portion of its system to 20-25% and ful lling the rest with apps on top. This is a risk-mitigation strategy against potential future interoperability issues, and shows how blockchain is just one part of the new digital trading infrastructure.

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