Open source software can facilitate sector coupling through vehicle-to-grid or building-to-grid technology
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FROM CLOSED TO OPEN Industries such as telecoms and the automotive sector are using open source software to share data and drive innovation. Transmission grid operators in Europe are starting to follow suit to speed up the transition from fossils fuels to renewables
ADVANTAGES Open source software can make it easier to interpret vast quantities of data, lower the costs of digitalising the energy sector and help develop new products faster
KEY QUOTE “We are facing the daunting task of transforming the whole energy sector and open source has shown repeatedly it can facilitate drastic change”
Two years ago, Dutch-German transmission system operator (TSO) TenneT decided to make a radical change in the way it developed its data platform. “The one we were using was provided by a vendor, but we decided it was not working fast enough and did not incorporate the features we needed,” says Loek Bakker, head of TenneT’s information management office.
The TSO built its own cloud-based data platform using open source software in which the original source code that provides instructions to computers and other electronic devices on how to run applications is made freely available and may be altered and redistributed. Thanks to this decision, TenneT has access to the “greatest and latest” in big data analytics to help interpret a vast quantity of data and perform tasks such as forecasting renewable energy generation and operating and maintaining the grid.
TenneT is talking to other TSOs to explore opportunities for joint data platform development. While proprietary software solutions are available for data platforms, big data analytics is progressing fast and updates can be made more quickly with open source software, which has a wider base of developers, speeding up the development of new applications. Since the original source code can be modified, it also allows greater flexibility to customise software.
Open source represents one of the “great leverage points we have to transition from fossil fuels, to electrify the grid and to move to electric mobility,” believes Shuli Goodman, executive director of LF Energy, a Linux Foundation umbrella organisation focusing on open source and the power sector, set up in July 2018. LF Energy members include the European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E) and European TSOs Tennet, Energinet (Denmark), Elering (Estonia) and RTE (France), along with European and American universities and research institutes like the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Fraunhofer IEE in Germany.
Goodman sees LF Energy providing a neutral place for interaction where utilities and system operators can work together to create open source software applications, co-investing and paving the way for a series of common standards and platforms that can be rolled out on a wide scale, lowering the costs of digitalising the energy sector.
A DAUNTING TASK
“We are facing the daunting task of transforming the whole energy sector and open source has shown repeatedly it can facilitate drastic changes in industry, such as in the telecoms and automotive sectors,” says Fedder Skovgaard, network enterprise architect at Energinet in Denmark. Open source software drove the rise of the Internet and open source operating systems dominate mobile phone networks. Car producers, known to be fierce competitors, have joined forces in open source partnerships in areas ranging from infotainment (in-vehicle audio and video entertainment systems) to self-driving cars. The open source software development model is “becoming the backbone for driving digital innovation” according to research and advisory firm Gartner.
The need to work with massive quantities of data to accelerate digital innovation in the power sector and the energy transition is a common thread running through a number of LF Energy projects. They include the development of open source software for digital substations, the provision of flexibility services to the grid and carbon emissions tracking.
SLOW TO TAKE OFF
While open source has been fundamental in other industries, it has been slow to take off in energy, says Goodman. This tardiness is partially because vendors continue to sell system operators “black boxes, monolithic software that is just one huge application” even though such solutions are not modern and do not have the needed flexibility, she says. “It does not allow us to meet the challenge we face. We must transform the grid and do it quickly.”
Despite the innovation challenges they face, utilities are traditionally not known for cooperating. The move to an open source software model dependent on a community of innovators requires a significant change in their business approach and does not come without challenges.
“One key issue was to convince people open source was secure and safe,” says Bakker, plus educate them on what the term really means. That the original source code can be viewed and checked for security flaws provides one such guarantee. “Some people say open source software is actually safer because you have eyes looking at it and the problem can be fixed easily because there is a large developer base,” says Bakker.
In July 2019, TenneT published its open source strategy under a Creative Commons licence, making it available for use by others. “The combination of a transparent development community and access to public source codes enables organisations to think differently about how they procure, implement, test, deploy and maintain software,” says the TSO. “This has the potential to offer benefits, including reduced development costs, faster product development and higher code quality standards.”
Bakker believes increased use of the open source software development model will spur new partnerships in the energy industry, paving the way for open standards and greater interoperability of technology. It will also facilitate sector coupling, he says, through vehicle-to-grid or building-to-grid technology. “Open source is not only a way of developing software, but also of collaborating, states Bakker. “A standardised way of working using the same software platforms makes it easier for different sectors to work together.”
Energinet is now drafting its own open source strategy and seeking to become an active participant in the open source community rather than just a consumer. The TSO already provides open access to extensive data on Denmark’s energy production, consumption, carbon dioxide emissions and electricity market through its energy data service, which was launched in 2018 and uses an open source platform for data sharing.
“We believe the green transition requires a huge amount of software development and innovation. By opening up and sharing data, we hope to enable external innovation,” says Jesper Abildgaard, head of data and digitalisation at Energinet. One example of “external innovation” is ElectricityMap, an open source platform created by Franco-Danish software engineer Olivier Corradi which uses data from the energy data service and other sources to show the carbon intensity of power production in an ever-expanding number of countries. “It has had a tremendous impact on decision makers, who can see in real time if electricity is green or dark because it comes from sources like coal,” says Skovgaard.
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