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22 June 2018

Walmart gets in on the buzzwords, nets blockchain energy patent

Retail monolith Walmart has received a patent in the US, for ‘managing demand on an electrical grid using a publicly distributed transactions ledger.’ It outlines a system in which someone can purchase or sell energy, with the ledger checking that the energy is available and then recording the transaction.

It seems that efficiency is the main concern for Walmart, which notes in the filing that “currently, energy providers deliver energy to locations that inefficiently use the energy, which leads to increased energy costs for consumers. The increased costs result from various appliances and devices that consumer energy at higher levels than the appliance or device may actually need to function or perform certain tasks. Smart appliances and devices are now available to consumers that can operate more energy efficiently, but still consume more energy than needed or economically practical.”

And so, the goal is to use these smart appliances to ask for only the energy they need, allowing a utility (or whoever operates the particular network) to deliver only the energy actually needed – without turning the surplus energy into wasted heat or round-trip losses.

Retail chains like Walmart have massive square-footage of shop-floors and warehouses to worry about, and the energy bills for these alone can be one of the largest parts of their upkeep. Many of them have explored using solar panels on their roofs to help cut their energy costs, and Walmart in particular has been pretty keen on this approach.

Walmart (the largest company in the world when measured by revenue) is already involved in a blockchain-based logistics project, with IBM, Kroger, and Nestle, as well as a separate Chinese project with JD. To this end, Walmart already filed a patent for a “smart package” that could track environmental conditions of an asset as it travels through a supply chain. Walmart also filed for a similar drone-based patent too.

This new energy patent defines three separate areas of the system. The first is a metering device, which is given a set budget with which to purchase energy. The second part is the energy provider system, which then performs the inverse – it supplies energy to the buyers in exchange for that currency. The third element is the overarching computer system that administers the system.

Unfortunately, Walmart is being very tight-lipped about its intentions for the patent. While it seems likely that it might find uses for it inside its own locations, using it as a way to control the (mostly) solar-powered microgrids that would allow it to mostly island a store from the wider utility macrogrids, it does seem pretty unlikely that Walmart is going to set up an Energy wing and try to commercialize it that way – although stranger things have happened.

Another potential angle might be through white good appliance partners. Walmart sells a lot of things used in the home, and if Walmart could find a way to entice these OEMs and manufacturers, it could potentially act as a bridge between them and the energy utilities that will supply the homes that purchase these appliances.

The value proposition of such an arrangement is pretty strong. The utilities get to save money on purchasing energy that is only going to be wasted, and if the branding is right, the appliance providers could see a logo used to promote the fact that their goods could help cut home energy bills and reduce their environmental impact.

Such a project could be on the cards, but it does seem like it’s years away. There are a lot of barriers to overcome when it comes to negotiating such a system, but there would be fewer headaches if Walmart was just looking at using the technology internally.

Walmart also received two separate patents this week – one for storing and accessing medical records on a blockchain, and the other for controlling access to a locked area. The healthcare one outlines how it would store emergency care data and instructions, rather than entire medical records, so that a first responder (or perhaps in-store first aider) could access the records – which would be stored on a bracelet or other local medium.

The locking patent describes how cryptographic security keys would be stored on a blockchain, and then enable access to both real and virtual areas. There’s not much more to add here, but such a system could be very useful for each store or warehouse – allowing trackable access to facilities, and hopefully prevent unauthorized access.

However, these last two applications have less of an obvious need for a blockchain foundation. Medical bracelets already exist, and most people’s smartphones will offer some form of emergency health data display. Similarly, there are already a lot of card-based systems for managing access to places, and it isn’t really clear what benefit a blockchain-based ledger is bringing to the table here.