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Rethinking Software Development: How Open Source Is Defining a New Era for Energy and Utilities

They say that if you put good out into the world, it will come back to you. That might not be an idea people normally associate with the software development industry, but that idea more or less perfectly describes the open-source community. For that, and many other reasons, open source is something that many providers not only embrace, but also include as part of their business model.

As opposed to proprietary software, open-source code allows for transparency in its development or origins, built on the belief that better software and stronger communities are only possible when technology is accessible to everyone. To realize this vision, many businesses endeavor to build the digital future by investing their time and resources into open-source projects, including XEN, FINOS, DRUPAL, APACHE, and OSDU.

One such industry, where external enterprises often help drive business architecture by deploying open-source software and technology, is energy and utilities—an ever-evolving and volatile sector. Although typically reluctant to move away from their legacy systems and processes due to a lack of organizational capability and uncertainty in platform standardization, the leveraging of new technologies like automation and optimization helped many energy providers transform their outdated business practices.

Historically, there has been a hesitancy to adopting open-source software due to vulnerabilities, bad actors, and hacking scenarios; decision-makers often think about a Colonial Pipeline hacking 2.0. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth—open-source software is not much different from proprietary software when it comes to security. While it’s true that open-source code is free and can be distributed (without commercial royalty) or modified, it does not imply that it is somehow inferior to proprietary software or somehow suspect for malicious code. Utility providers, power plants, and transmission and distribution systems can develop algorithmic code based on secure open-source software.

1. As energy providers move away from legacy systems to open-source software, they pass on additional benefits to end-users, like intuitive interfaces and optimization. Courtesy: EPAM Systems

In the power generation and utilities industry, numerous initiatives, both in the public and private sector, are advancing. The history of the electric utility industry was single-directional. In other words, burn coal to produce electrons; send those electrons down a transmission network; and then put it through a transformer, step that down to a distribution network, and on to the customer. Today, it’s much more complicated with the advent of renewable energy; there is a new need for powerline carriers to function and provide bi-directional communications (Figure 1).

Rebuilding the grid to meet the challenges of today’s power network, and providing a two-way system of communications, comes with several complex problems. Many of these can be addressed and fixed securely by open-source code. Not only does open source facilitate interoperability of the grid—such as charging stations and battery storage, to simply meet demand with generation supply as well as allocated resources that have distributed supply—it also can continually optimize those systems.

Many top contributors on the Open Source Contributor Index routinely deliver leading-edge technologies and strategies to the world’s premier energy utilities, oil and gas, and oilfield services companies. These contributors positioned themselves as a services vendor using an open-source model they feel can, and should be, replicated by others in the industry. Power and utility providers are using open source in a range of areas, including:

Design Optimization. Capital, operations and maintenance, as well as construction work.

Energy Management. Flow the energy from creation to consumption.

Asset Management. The entire asset management lifecycle, from installation to retire.

Work Management. The entire work management lifecycle, including preventive work, construction work, emergency work, etc.

Smart Meter and/or Smart Grid Analytics. Energy grid moderation and optimization using data and advanced analytics.

Regardless of the use case, these contributors are really replacing the “create and consume” mindset with a “create and contribute” way of thinking. There is no longer the assumption within their enterprise that something they create is their little golden egg to be kept hidden away from the world. For example, one of these top 20 contributors built an enterprise-wide data analytics platform alongside 100-plus analytics products for a major international oil and gas operator. As the preferred partner for this oil and gas operator, it led the end-to-end journey by providing business consulting, industry expertise, architecture, deployment, data engineering, data science, and visualization solutions. Similarly, it designed and implemented an artificial intelligence–powered interface for global engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) firms to track, along with managing and predicting the health of their $1 billion-plus projects.

2. Open-source software helps the power and utility industry solve many of the complicated problems associated with renewable energy, such as rebuilding the grid to provide bi-directional communications. Courtesy: EPAM Systems

Open source has defined a new era in software development beyond product and design specialists’ contributions and successes. Several renewable energy companies (Figure 2) are turning to open source to overcome challenges, such as smaller budgets, rudimentary tools, and inefficient data storage. By building scalable software solutions through open-source tools, they can lower product development costs, have faster product development cycles (development, testing, deployment, and environment readiness), and achieve higher code-quality standards, along with facilitating collaboration and streamlining maintenance.

Interestingly, open source used to carry a stigma of being easily hackable and was considered a cheap alternative to proprietary software. Since then, open source resides at the heart of innovation as it allows anyone to have the ability to modify and share creations. This freedom fueled the rise of tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, many other massive enterprises like Microsoft, Walmart, and JP Morgan Chase use and make open-source software.

3. Many providers, including several renewable energy companies, are turning to open-source software to overcome various challenges. The software provides cost savings after budget cuts, and offers scalable solutions and faster product development. Courtesy: EPAM Systems

While the energy industry—particularly renewables (Figure 3)—lagged behind other enterprises with the creation and implementation of open-source software, there are some in the traditional power and energy sector that have already leveraged a massive and diverse range of power and utilities operational and management data. In 2019, Duke Energy and Avista Development teamed up to invest in open-source software for grid-edge technologies to provide customers with information and tools to help manage their energy usage. Also, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) built a fully functional open-source version of its VEN and VTN implements. Demonstrated by Duke/Avista and EPRI, by following the steps of the tech industry, the energy sector should build on top of an existing foundation and platform that can integrate their products or services.

Of course, a critical factor in ensuring an open-source contributor can truly celebrate their successes is by making sure they have a process in place to get their creations out into the world responsibly. To that end, developers looking to implement open-source code are encouraged to prioritize quality over quantity, addressing these four considerations:

■ Security and risk management, including cybersecurity.

■ Regulatory and compliance requirements.

■ Organizational compatibility, including infrastructure.

■ Technical challenges, maintenance, and support.

The four-phase process provides a guide for using open source, removing innovation barriers or making them easier to overcome to minimize effort. Of course, the central part of this process is to review the appropriate software license checks, support code reviews, and scan for any potential security vulnerabilities. But because key stakeholders are required to help with the red tape, what should be the most challenging part of the process on paper is mostly positive because they understand that the contributor is here to support their efforts.

This approach isn’t cumbersome, and there are no surprises hiding around the corner. It’s very rare that something pops up that actually is a blocker, and if it does, nine out of 10 times, it can absolutely be rectified with the right people ready to remove roadblocks. That’s really important because open source isn’t about pushing stuff out there that ultimately will sit dormant and not be accessible to anyone. It’s about pushing stuff out that’s useful, and contributors want to get that stuff out the door as well, so they can start chatting about it and celebrating it.

4. Open-source software allows for smart meters and grid analytics, maximizing energy consumption by balancing supply and demand beyond the meter with system automation. Courtesy: EPAM Systems

As utilities move toward open source, it’s clear it’s happening in the grid. From bi-directional communications to standards and analytics, open source aids in maximizing energy consumption by balancing supply and demand beyond the meter. It enables a push of analytics from beyond just the generation central station power plant, out into the field to a distributed network, or even better, past the meter and into the customer’s home (Figure 4).

Much like open source itself, this entire process is tried and tested, and can be quickly adopted by other organizations. Likewise, the beauty of open-source communities is that they can make their processes accessible and free of the usual red tape, which is likely to create the kind of excitement among their own engineers that will improve collaboration and drive truly better software for everyone.

Chris Howard is Open Source Lead, and Steve Chastain is vice president, Energy Practice Leader, for EPAM Systems Inc.

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