As coal prices fluctuate and regulations increase, utilities are phasing out dirty coal sources. With renewable energy like solar and wind set to become the fastest-growing sources of electricity generation in 2020, it might seem like utilities are turning to greener options. But in reality, the transition to renewable energy isn’t that simple.
Managing Mountains of Data
No matter how much a power producer wants to “go green,” our current power grid and control systems were built decades ago and simply can’t handle the torrent of edge data headed their way. The International Energy Agency has reported that 11 billion smart energy devices could soon connect to the grid, significantly increasing loads and resources—data will become a critical enabler for system and network operators to choreograph supply and demand flexibility.
This influx of data, coupled with the variability of renewable energy, means we are fundamentally shifting the energy paradigm to enable the electrification of everything to scale. Electricity and energy will no longer have centralized control, but will rely on interconnected devices to actively participate in electricity systems. So, upgrading the grid isn’t an easy task.
To avoid the challenges presented by the architectural issue, power producers turn to band-aid solutions, like using natural gas to generate electricity. Just last year, natural gas fueled more than 60% of newly installed electric-generating capacity and accounted for 35% of total U.S. electricity generation.
These challenges are daunting, but I think we have an opportunity to learn from other sectors (such as the telecommunication and automotive industries) that have already modernized and digitized. The introduction of the internet, Linux OS, and cloud computing transformed these industries. Open-source technology that is built and owned collectively connects digitally transformed industries and these fast hyper-scaling technologies. It is the infrastructure of tomorrow, today.
The Linux Foundation and its umbrella project, LF Energy, are two of the world’s great enablers of rapid decarbonization. Open source is a permissive intellectual property agreement that allows for joint investment by multiple partners. When coupled with a clear and proven governance model, the world can quickly manage massive collective action. Globally, we need a gravitational center that will enable us to collaborate at scale to imagine, design, and solve the issues of power and energy.
Imagine a Future Grid Powered by Open-Source Technology
The future power grid will be built on interrelated, primarily open-source communication networks—the internet and 5G—that will solve hardware interoperability and usher in a time of radical energy efficiency. The grid of the future is distributed, built on a foundation that networks together millions of microgrids. This allows campuses, malls, universities, hospitals, and other institutions to function as self-contained mini grids.
Although utilities want to increase efficiency and adopt renewables, each source of renewable energy requires customized software, making it nearly impossible to integrate systems. When utilities work together, they are able to solve pain points and deliver clean energy solutions to customers faster.
Other solutions, such as expanding the current grid, would require enormous capital and labor. Digital solutions that include open-source technology can abstract complexity and virtualize some hardware functionality using software. Open source can also provide the non-differentiating software that will power the energy networks of the future. Industries that have already digitized followed a similar process, collaborating on commodity layers of software to eliminate hardware.
We need new digital foundations that facilitate interconnectivity between software and hardware. Open-source technology has the ability to optimize day-to-day operations, while simultaneously reducing costs associated with renewables. When it comes to creating smart solutions, open source is the best and most efficient option, combining brain power from leaders across the globe. In addition, once there’s consensus on a solution, it can be deployed much more rapidly, so we can focus on increasing levels of complexity to solve the problems of the future.
Moving Toward a Sustainable Future
Transitioning globally to renewables must come in steps. First, we must address foundational interoperability issues so renewable energy can operate on the current grid. Then we must enable scalability by learning to work with and manage torrents of data.
With the help of open-source technology, we can abstract hardware using software. We must build digital foundations that can shape electricity demand and exponentially expand the grid into a distributed model for energy production and distribution. The current power grid cannot sustain the variability of renewable energy. But the Earth cannot continue to sustain dirty energy sources for much longer, either. ■
—Shuli Goodman is executive director of LF Energy.