Open source has been such an incredible building block for the software industry over the last 30 years, and has helped many industries navigate the digital transition. Now we are facing a much bigger, more expensive, and politically charged transition – to renewable energy, the replacement of massive infrastructure, and complete digitisation at the same time.

So where can open source software help us on this journey? In reality, the hard aspects of electricity are rooted in the need for common, or shared, infrastructure, and deciding who gets to use it, and how much they pay. Sharing the one electricity grid brings up challenging questions of equity, of safeguards for those in need, and for ensuring that generators don’t use market power and price manipulation to line their pockets at the expense of everyday consumers.

Sharing things is hard. And monopolies are worse, particularly when they are unregulated. So, what can we learn from the world of open source about developing digital infrastructure that can be co-authored, shared, trusted and freely distributed at the minimum cost to the sector?

Trust through transparency: As we start building infrastructure that becomes essential to almost every business for continuity, and to every home to meet basic needs, we rightly need to have the utmost trust in the software systems that operate them. As these systems start to make important decisions on behalf of its constituents with the increased prevalence of AI and autonomous systems, transparency becomes critical. Being able to inspect how the systems are coded, protected and optimised to meet agreed outcomes is now foundational building block. Automation in businesses, as well as in homes, will become increasingly uncomfortable with proprietary solutions that do not address this fundamental requirement.

Cost: The energy transition is not cheap, and whilst some things can be led by innovation and a propensity for customers to spend more on new technology, there are many things that are needed that do not fit in that category. There are many things that people expect as standard today, but do not want to pay for. These are great candidates for open source technology, as there is benefit is all providers collaborating and standardising these technologies to deliver them at lowest cost, and as a building block for more valuable, innovative and commercially viable capabilities.

Reuse: Technology development in the energy sector over the last 20 years hasn’t really made any traction on the issue of reuse. Technologies are innovated and absorbed by strategic acquirers rather than bigger technology companies, and rarely get incorporated into bigger and better product sets. In the automotive sector as a point of contrast, we are now seeing a huge influx in technology development right through the supply chain, from better sensors, to operating systems, to advanced AI navigation and driver assistance technologies. The energy sector isn’t nearly as lucky, and needs to find a different path to allow reuse and progression. Open source can offer an avenue for achieving this reuse at a very low cost.

Building communities

To make open source successful we need vibrant communities of users, from large corporates to the smallest innovators. There have been some notable attempts at bootstrapping open source communities in energy, such as the LFEnergy project as part of the Linux foundation. However it is fair to say that it is still very early days in terms of take-up, and it is yet to see any high profile wins of successful projects at a global scale that point to their open source foundations as key to their success. Perhaps over the next few years, where we need to make massive headway in a very tough economic climate, necessity may emerge once again as the mother of invention.

As part of the energy transition we need our government regulated (and often owned) utilities to be proponents of open source for better outcomes for consumers, and not be always driven to the global control systems companies such as GE, Schneider, ABB who have little interest in something that is cheap and reusable.

Recommended Posts