Energy Singularity Challenge 2020: Social Energy Networks

The Energy Singularity Challenge at Odyssey Momentum, led by Grid Singularity and Engie, and further supported by Stedin, Alliander, Enpuls and E.ON, as well as the Florence School of Regulation, engaged diverse stakeholders to simulate, experiment and advance the deployment of agent-based bottom-up energy markets. The Energy Singularity Challenge took place virtually on 13–15 November 2020, with the first challenge stream exploring the technical deployment of peer-to-peer energy markets, and the second stream soliciting new ways of engaging with consumers and prosumers to optimise and rethink an individual’s relationship with energy. This article tells the story of the ideation course and outcomes of the second stream.

The Ideation Framework

In March 2020, three teams were selected to compete in the Energy Singularity Challenge Stream Two: Decergy, rvolt and Streaming Potential. To prepare for Odyssey Momentum, they participated in a series of

i. Workshops organised by Grid Singularity to collaboratively explore the changing shape of the energy grid and understand the role of Grid Singularity’s D3A software in that transition. Teams used a modified version of Google’s Design Sprint methodology and a Miro tool to generate and structure ideas, engaging in individual sessions with Grid Singularity’s management, research, and user experience teams to refine concepts, understand relevant technical inputs, and receive feedback; and

ii. Webinars organised by Odyssey Momentum to develop the individual team’s approach and prepare for the 48 hours of hacking by exploring the teams’ motivations and methods to simplify pitches in structured ecosystem interface slides.

The Energy Singularity Challenge instructed the teams as follows:

Design a new user application to prove that energy can be a social instrument that benefits (communities of) pro/sumers! Unlock all new degrees of freedom provided by grid-aware local electricity markets and interaction with the final pro/sumer. Think about energy as the underlying essence that connects all people in society, but which has not yet been harnessed as a social network.

Understanding the user and how to engage them with their energy use will be core to motivate education and investment in local energy communities. Ewald Hesse, CEO of Grid Singularity, encouraged teams at the opening:

“We are now at the turning point of the energy transition where in the next 10 years we will see more investments “behind” the meter than “before” the meter. And I think that in the final push we will reach 100% renewables and the resilience system has to come from the final consumers. Currently there is no relationship to energy, so we have to create it, as energy is something that is connecting us all the time.”

Etienne Gehain, Digital Innovation Officer at Engie, highlighted the connection between the two streams of the Energy Singularity Challenge and the resulting synergy:

“Peer-to-peer energy markets developed in the first stream of the Energy Singularity Challenge will be the key components to efficiently share the value created within energy communities. However, these communities should thrive on more than energy transactions. A sense of belonging, inclusiveness, and ease of onboarding created in this Stream Two will all be critical in growing successful communities.”

To support the teams, energy experts from energy corporations, academia and leading research organisations participated in discussions, providing feedback for the teams to incorporate in their final user application designs. The discussions centred around:

In a discussion on social fairness, Dr Michael Fell advised the teams to balance the benefits of personalisation with risks of discrimination:

“One of the key attractive things that we are looking at is introducing personalisation and getting more of an idea who you might be transacting with, so you want to retain that while not introducing this new possibility for discrimination or controlling it as much as possible. One of the options is to use the instant book option, as in Airbnb. Another option is transacting not at an individual level but more of a community level.”

Fell additionally emphasised the need for inclusivity, especially when considering people who are not typical technology adopters:

“It’s important to ensure that we are not going into this and silencing people who could be benefiting from these sorts of services and who could potentially benefit the most. It’s about making the apps as accessible as possible.”

Dr Nicolò Rossetto, Research Associate at the Florence School of Regulation, challenged the teams to think big and communicate clearly about their expanded offering:

“If we are going to personalise energy, that is change energy from a commodity into something tailored, and if we want to sell additional features of energy like its origin, then we cannot limit the freedom of sellers and buyers too much. If we do so, the new solutions will not fly. Indeed, if we go back to a world where your options are limited, then why not stay with the current situation where you have retailers providing standard electricity contracts?”

Energy Singularity Challenge: Accounting for Social Fairness in Designing Energy Applications, Dr Michael Fell

The Ideas

a. Decergy Team

A six-person team of students and recent graduates (Jorge Ballesteros, Emilia Chojkiewicz, Oscar Damanik, Laura Laringe, Kamil Rzechowski and Rusna Tan), Decergy was founded during a semester-long “Industrial Innovation Project” of EIT Master’s studies in energy engineering. Team member Oscar Damanik elaborated: “During the project we studied the potential of distributed ledger technologies and decentralised applications in the power grid, which motivated us to apply for the hackathon.”

The team used knowledge gained at leading European and international academic institutions (including INP Grenoble and Université Paris-Saclay in France, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, KU Leuven in Belgium, University Carlos III de Madrid and UPC Barcelona in Spain, Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia and Duke University, USA). “As a student studying human-computer interaction, it was exciting for me to apply my knowledge in the energy industry,” declared Rusna Tan.

Combined with a fresh and open mind, the team reimagined decentralised energy and social engagement to propose their solution. They challenged the status quo with a bold, honest statement, illustrated in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Decergy Team concept development process

“Energy is boring. That’s why people are disconnected with their energy — or in this case, more specifically, electricity. It is at your fingertips, at the flip of a switch. It is an assumed constant in our lives. It is also complicated: unless you are an energy engineer, you probably do not understand how much a kilowatt or kilowatt-hour represents. How can we bridge this gap between people and energy, to build understanding and connection?”

The answer to this question would meet the Energy Singularity Stream Two challenge: to build an app that engages users with energy. As Jorge Ballesteros suggested: “We could change the mindset of people by showing how cool it could be to interact with energy.”

To understand how existing apps engage their users in virtual communities, the team studied user interactions on apps like Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. One of the key observations was that the users, rather than the platforms themselves, produce content. “If you have an Internet connection, you can stay updated on how your friends, families, and neighbours are doing. The success of these apps can be attributed to this basic feature: interactions with loved ones,” explained Jorge Ballesteros.

“And so we came up with our solution: Litt, a social network for trading energy. After all, it’s not the energy itself, but what you can do with it,” exclaimed Emilia Chojkiewicz, Decergy team captain.

Figure 2: Decergy Team prototype development

As shown in Figure 2, the team structured the “Litt app” like many social media platforms: the home page is a news feed, where you can see the activity of your friends, family, and neighbours. The basis of these social interactions would be energy transactions. As elaborated by Oscar Damanik:

“15 kilowatt-hours (kWh) does not mean anything to an average person; however, if we tell you that you can drive 100 km with it, this changes your perception of energy. The Litt app converts ambiguous energy quantities to easily understandable units, like a cup of coffee, kilometres of electric vehicle charge, or minutes of a hot shower.”

You can react and comment on energy transactions, and set up notifications to stay up to date. It also features a map, like in Snapchat, so you can see users in your local area. You can link your other social media accounts to cross-post updates on other platforms, too. “In this way, we are building social interactions in a familiar way,” explained Rusna Tan.

Figure 3: Decergy Team app proposal

Figure 3 shows several screens of the app. In their profile, a user would indicate the energy assets they have in their home, such as their smart meter, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, a battery for energy storage, or an electric vehicle and charger. The energy they produce and consume in the peer to peer energy markets, made possible with Grid Singularity’s energy exchange platform, would be measured in kWh and rewarded with Decergy’s token concept, called ‘Litts’. On the backend, the app would link to a registry of the energy equivalent of everyday items, like a cup of coffee. App users would send or request Litts from any contact they choose with a customisable message. As with any banking app, they could view their transaction history and activity in the app’s balance feature.

The proposal left a very strong impression with the energy market stakeholders, who also acknowledged the complexity of the concept implementation. The Energy Singularity Challenge Stream Two Mayor Hugo Schönbeck, whose role was to ensure that all stakeholder opinions would be voiced, commented: “To reach true optimisation the electrical layer should be the main focus, and regulatory and financial aspects are instrumental in this respect.”

“As a student team, our goal was to engage our generation with our app. After all, young people will be most impacted by the energy transition and thus they will need to play an active role. The Litt app enables users without energy assets to participate by requesting Litts or redeeming them from other users,” emphasised Laura Laringe.

Finally, as concluded by Emilia Chojkiewicz (team captain):

“For the Decergy team, participation in the Energy Singularity Challenge was an opportunity to apply classroom learning to impact the real world. Interacting with the jury, jedi, and other teams broadened our perspectives. We were left with new ideas and insights, plus renewed inspiration of reimagining the role of energy in society. With the Litt app, energy is fun!”

b. Rvolt Team

The rvolt team started with an advantage of representing a Berlin startup established in 2019 as an energy platform that gamifies sustainable energy and helps households reduce carbon emissions from daily energy demand. The three-person team was captained by Quirin Blendl, serial founder contributing to sustainable energy systems, with more than seven years of experience in digitising industrial value chains; Damian Wiliński​, a mobile developer with a passion for sustainability and user engagement with several years of experience in building mobile solutions, and Stephen Bosch, a renewable energy and data science engineer with experience developing energy infrastructure solutions. Quirin Blendl related the story of how the team joined the Energy Singularity Challenge:

“The first lockdown had just started and most of our clients and leads either declined or postponed their commitments. Our story seemed too ambitious, too much of a gamble in a saturated and conservative market. Grid Singularity as a challenge leader, however, was looking for something different, more ambitious, and maybe a bit crazy but definitely not a copy. After one phone conversation, we were encouraged to start the ideation process over again.”

Preparing for the hackathon, rvolt endeavoured to understand how people currently think about and interact with their energy consumption. They conducted several surveys, including one with 108 current users of rvolt’s software solution. The surveys revealed a disconnect between people and their energy use, but also that certain people want that to change;

“The sad truth we discovered was that very few people actually care, and possibly just a fifth of the general population would change their behaviour. The majority love the current convenience. The strongest issues that garnered attention were price and the environmental impact. Other solutions such as transparency, referrals or up-sales were deemed to be not interesting or too unrelated to energy. In contrast to these findings, we were positively surprised to discover that the majority were also aware of the energy transition and strongly motivated to contribute,“ explained Damian Wiliński​.

As the chart below indicates, three quarters of the polled rvolt users, who represent the minority that cares strongly about energy, wish to know the source of their energy and to use an interactive app:

Figure 4: rvolt users survey, June 2020

The team inferred that the energy market underestimates the potential of a certain group of customers. The goal became to translate the rather complex and tech-driven market into a simple solution. Quirin Blendl admitted that the team was puzzled:

“We were locked in the fundamentals of the energy market structure and were looking for this engaging and funny thing which should also be personal, relatable — and ideally grow from one person to a wider network. We went back to our childhood, thinking about the toys and games we were playing. We were cowboys and knights, played soccer, created worlds in lego and fed our tamagotchis. Duh — there it was. Very simple and relatable. But how should we plant this gamification into an energy app?”

Figure 5: rvolt team app proposal

rvolt’s proposal developed during the Energy Singularity Challenge and shown in Figure 5, transformed their current solution into one that is more interactive. It stemmed from a simple idea that all interaction with energy infrastructure will be evaluated and represented in the well-being of the shared planet, which the team represented by a user’s “carby” (the word was coined with inspiration from Cryptokitty, which became the carbon kitty and finally: carby). To collect points, a user would optimise demand by changing their consumption patterns to improve their energy use metrics (i.e. charge your battery or wash your clothes when the sun is shining or wind blowing). Users would also be able to select the preferred source of energy, such as a neighbour’s solar panel or a local convenience store battery. In this way users create energy communities in which they can share, purchase, collect and donate energy capacities.

Figure 6: rvolt team app future development

The rvolt team considered the hackathon an ideal testing and development arena. Stephen Bosch stated: “ We got quick and valuable feedback in inspiring conversations with people from various backgrounds interested in a new energy market design. We proposed a solution for users to access a resilient carbon free energy system.”

c. Streaming Potential Team

A team of industry experts and students, including Max van der Horst, Marnix Paanakker, Bart van Veldhoven, Kim de Winter and Roy Birnholtz, with shared expertise in sustainable energy technology, coding, cyber security and data privacy, was gathered by team captain and 2019 Odyssey veteran Edgar Versteeg.

Preparing for the hackathon, the team considered how to boost the engagement of small businesses, football clubs and a whole range of other community groups. “We really struggled in the Energy Singularity Challenge to determine what gets people motivated to contribute to energy communities since energy is generally a low interest product,” explained Marnix Paanakker.

Reflecting on what involves passion, emotions and interactions within the community, the team decided to focus on artists as a target group that would lead to broader engagement. They called the app “GETAMPED, alluding that a creative artist would get ‘amplified’ by a fanbase of ‘prosumers’ connected by a shared energy grid.

“Our team aimed for simplicity, finally ending up with a concept of a marketplace where a prosumer can share or exchange energy for something that he/she is passionate about,” explained Edgar Versteeg, Streaming Potential team captain. Another team member, Roy Birnholtz stressed: “We really felt the need to strip energy trading down to the absolute essence of what excites people. Energy data and carbon reduction metrics attract too few.” Kim de Winter revealed: “It was critical to bring artistic and other communities to play to raise interest.”

The Streaming Potential team searched for inspiration in other applications.

“Our concept is in some ways similar to the Patreon application, which opens new revenue streams for artists, but asks why would you not donate a part of your energy instead or use it to buy art,” elaborates Max van der Horst. The proposed business concept anticipates a double-sided business model whereby an artist or a football club offers services to the marketplace, which attracts (potential) prosumers (consumers who also produce energy) to support them by sharing energy.

The idea resonated with the participating energy market experts such as Nicolò Rossetto: “It is a way to attract prosumers that want to get involved in a community: they subscribe to an energy supplier or aggregator and get access to artists as a side benefit.”

Hemma Bieser, founder of Аvantsmart, agreed that supporting artists could engage communities: “Why not start with the artist? Usually they have a large community with many followers and fans and the growth can be generated through this base.”

Kerstin Eichmann, Managing Director at E.ON Group Innovation, further suggested: “You can consider to include clubs that by nature need energy, maybe only green energy, like Gamers.”

Figure 7: Streaming Potential design concept development

During the hackathon weekend, the team consulted experts in incentive models and gamification to learn and incorporate these learnings in the app design. “Thanks to those discussions, we believe we have found the right balance between the extrinsic (financial) and intrinsic (emotion) motivation of the user,” stated Edgar Versteeg.

Figure 8: Streaming Potential app proposal

“We are convinced that besides the ‘user interaction’ between a prosumer and an artist, we need to address concepts of ‘community and energy management’ for further testing,” said Bart van Veldhoven. The community needs social dynamics to grow, but the technical execution needs to be aligned with the current applicable regulations for energy trading.

On the mechanics of energy trading, the team intends to integrate the application interface with Grid Singularity’s D3A platform to tap into the value that is created within local energy communities. “We want to enable the prosumer to allocate a part of their PV, electric vehicle or any other energy asset to an artist,” explained Marnix Paanakker. The team strongly believes in the power that originates when people can share or exchange their energy directly for goods they love. Hence the name ‘Streaming Potential’. As a next step, the team will seek pilot communities to test the proposed concept and explore opportunities to bring it to the market.

Figure 9: Streaming Potential team future app development

d. Grid Singularity Team (GS_y Team)

In addition to the competing teams, the GS_y stellar design team including Florian Schmitt, Eric Müller Moreno and Estefani Mauro joined to support the design process of competing teams and generate another viable user app concept. They used an adapted version of Google’s Design Sprint Method, which is a way to bring ideas from mapping to prototyping in a limited timeframe. The set long-term goal was: “In 12–18 months, we will have 50,000+ fast-growing user base in Europe through viral app roll-out.”

In order to sketch solutions, the GS_y team showcased other products and good practices to use as inspiration and reference points. Some examples came from streaming platforms with unique social interaction concepts like Twitch, collaborative crowdsourcing platforms such as Waze and modern banking platforms that allow collaboration in the personal finance sphere like N26. Concept sketches were produced to critically assess initial concepts such as “energy clubs,” further developed in storyboards to understand how users could achieve what they were trying to accomplish in the app.

As illustrated by Eric Müller: “The name ‘Community’ brings a nice unity concept but also implies responsibility, and people are not excited by responsibilities. We therefore turned to the ‘Energy Clubs’ concept. It’s personal, easy to understand and brings with it a more laid back and open concept where people could join clubs related to personal interests or even social causes like the environment preservation.”

Figure 10: GS_y Team design concept development

As Eric Müller further explained:

“While sketching the first ideas we realised that we needed a starting point for the clubs to grow. After an empathy exercise we understood that the possibility of an average citizen buying a solar panel or a battery is remote, since there is no clear connection between the investment and the return. However, the small shops, like the local grocer, or the Späti (local convenience store) are always looking for ways to improve their business by creating parallel revenue streams, such as by adding an ATM machine or DHL service. We decided that the core of our app would be a community based interaction where local businesses provide the minimum structure and the neighbours would trade, interact and consume from each other.”

To roll out the first prototype, user goals were translated into simple features that could be easily understood by the general user. The team used the “App Store Prototype” method to simulate the apps’ pages and how they flowed together, and named the app “SAFT” stemming from the German word for juice and alluding to juice and energy flows.

Figure 11: GS_y Team app prototype

After a quick validation of the product core proposal, the team started to link the identified user goals with possible features they could implement in the app. This led to the creation of a clickable prototype to test the first user flows.

Estefani Mauro underlined the importance of understanding user flows:“We believe that if we start from the local level it will scale to a broader community, because it has the emotional connection. For example charity is a reason enough for people to create a club and start interacting. Regardless of whether you own a battery, a PV or a Tesla, you can start interacting with others and let the “Saft” flow.”

Figure 12: GS_y Team app prototype rollout

GS_y team captain Florian Schmitt illustrated how SAFT connects users with energy:

“People don’t care about energy, people care about people. SAFT will connect people to the things they care about via energy. Connecting to energy clubs allows you to support them in one click by allocating part of your energy budget to trading energy with them. It’s your choice — go local, go green, support a charity or trade with friends.”

The Finale

The jury judging the Energy Singularity Challenge for Stream Two included diverse energy market stakeholders:

The jury awarded Streaming Potential and rvolt with a shared first place and Decergy with second place taking into consideration not only the creativity of the idea but also the teams’ potential to develop the applications they proposed.

Michael Hübner emphasised the collaborative approach of the Energy Singularity Challenge and the enthusiasm emanating among the participants (as seen in Figure 13 and video below):

“It was very exciting to watch the teams over the last few days, I didn’t expect that it would be so exciting. Great spirit amongst the teams and my colleagues in the jury. It is a big task to transform the energy world into something interesting, digestible and appealing for people. I’m keen to learn how we can solve this task of bringing emotions in the energy world.”

Katharina Habersbrunner was optimistic about the future interactive energy applications:

“We at Bündnis Bürgerenergie are ready for the decentralised energy transition. My expectation is that prosumer approaches are feasible and allow for everyone to participate in the energy transition and I hope to see more and more interesting interfaces and applications.”

Figure 13: Energy Singularity Challenge live discussion, November 2020

Engineering d3a.io, open source software that simulates and operates custom energy exchanges, creating local marketplaces that interconnect to form a smart grid

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