Why Open Source Works for the Renewable Energy Sector

According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, renewable energy is the fastest-growing energy source globally where 24% of the energy generated in 2015 came from renewable sources such as biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro, wind, and biofuels. This is expected to increase to 31% by 2040 and will heavily depend on a number of factors including the development of technologies to make these energy sources cost-effective. A number of renewable energy companies, many of which are smaller and newer entrants to the overall energy sector, are doing just that—building scalable software solutions with the use of open-source tools to help optimize day-to-day operations and reduce costs.

Technology Improves Processes

Many energy operators turned to technology years ago to help them better understand how their process, devices, and overall businesses were doing. In particular, they try to understand:

  • The overall level of energy generation at all times in order to determine whether they can fulfill supply and demand.
  • The energy generation level of each device and why, including the state of the device, what kind of maintenance is required to perform at optimum levels, and the impact the current conditions have on the device.
  • The reasons for service degradation, which in some cases may still need to be discovered with the use of data already collected or with data that still needs to be collected.

Operators have always known that in order for equipment to run optimally, data is required. This is especially true when working with nature as the energy source. Energy like wind, hydro, or solar are not constant and therefore require operators to adapt their equipment regularly to changes in the environment.

For example, wind turbines in colder climates may need to be shut down from time to time in the winter months due to the accumulation of ice on the blades. And once the conditions improve, legislation dictates that a successful visual inspection is required before they can be turned back on. If, however, the turbine isn’t performing as expected after turning it back on, operators can rely on the data collected to help determine whether it was the ice, the forced shutdown, or any other moving parts that are the cause.

Old Challenges Require New Solutions

This is just one example of the challenges that renewable energy operators are faced with. Other things that they need to contend with include, but are not limited to:

  • Device Location. Energy generating devices are often in remote and geographically dispersed areas. Companies don’t want to send out a technician every day to check how the devices are doing; they prefer to send a technician out to service a particular device or part.
  • Data. Companies need to collect data—a lot of data—per device, at precise time intervals, and at precision levels that may vary from device to device. They need to be able to store all this data for historical analysis or production forecasting, and they need to be able to do this in an instant. More often than not, data is not readily accessible and stored in remote storage, requiring a person hoping to do any kind of analysis to physically go get the data.
  • Rudimentary tools. A lot of data is still collected by a human walking the field. Often this data is stored in spreadsheets or on paper.
  • Optimization. Equipment is expensive and fragile, making it even more important to be able to protect their assets as well as maximize their usage.

To contend with these challenges, many renewable energy operators relied on technologies created and distributed by original equipment manufacturers. This was problematic since the solutions were built with a perspective of managing a piece of equipment and not the overall service/solution. These solutions are not extensible or scalable, based on unsupported operating systems and come at a hefty licensing price. This is naturally less than ideal since many of the installations are on a smaller scale, distributed, and come with smaller budgets.

Interestingly, with smaller budgets comes the need to fully maximize equipment and the willingness to find new ways for optimizing operations including trying open-source solutions. Previously, open source held the stigma of being the cheap alternative to proprietary software, but open-source solutions have come a long way. Today, open source is at the heart of innovation in organizations as it allows developer teams to quickly bring ideas to fruition faster.

A Successful Open-Source Project

For many renewable energy operators, companies like Factry are helping them to exchange expensive legacy systems with solutions based on popular open-source projects. A recent example is provided by A&S Energie’s experience.

A&S Energie is a Belgian biomass plant that supplies electricity to 55,000 households by burning 180,000 metric tons of non-recyclable wood per year. At its maximum output, the plant generates 26 MW of power and has been operational since 2010.

A&S Energie presented a classic industrial internet of things (IIoT) challenge, involving high-cost, confined industrial equipment, requiring a useful life of many decades. It relied on a largely manual, error-prone, and time-consuming process, where individual operators recorded counters on paper, management reporting was done in spreadsheets, and the company’s existing historian was underutilized. In addition, it used a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system to archive sensor values, setpoints, and alarms for later analysis and trending.

Factry replaced A&S Energie’s historian solution with Factry Historian, which has an open-source, time-series database at its heart and supplies an open-source dashboard to management and the individual operators. The fact that the plant’s existing historian had been collecting data since 2010 required Factry to build a custom tool to migrate this data from the existing system to the new one. Despite this, data migration took only about a month, and once completed, the old system was switched off and the new Factry Historian was operational.

Data from A&S Energy’s SCADA system was only readily available for three months. Anything older than that had to be placed on an external physical medium and loaded into the trending tools of the SCADA system. In contrast, with the Factry solution in place, all data is continuously available.

There are several reasons why renewable energy operators may or may not succeed, which could range from blocks due to politics, economics, or even legal issues, but it is nice to know that with open source, technology no longer needs to be the impediment to increasing the production of green energy to the world.

Chris Churilo is director of product marketing with InfluxData.