Open source energy: could collaboration drive the clean energy transition?
Technological innovations have led not only to new ways of producing power, but new ways of working, and encouraging collaboration between companies. LF Energy aims to bring actors across the energy sector together to drive technological and cultural change in power, but, JP Casey asks: can it bear fruit?
ew power projects are almost synonymous with technological innovation, with each new solar facility or power grid system backed by a solar cell of record-breaking effectiveness, or an energy network of inconceivable efficiency. But technological developments affect not only the ways power is produced and consumed, but the ways power is managed, and how those involved in power communicate and collaborate.
From simple remote working operations, highlighted by the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic, to industrial-scale communication and management networks powered by open source architecture, the energy sector is undergoing a revolution in both power production and personal communication.
One player involved in this transition is the Linux Foundation, whose subsidiary, LF Energy, works to provide a “neural, collaborative community” for the energy industry.
In practice, the group works to connect innovators, investors, and decision-makers in the power sector, using open source interfaces to encourage collaboration between a range of actors and deliver solutions that are effective and agile enough to meet the rapidly-shifting environmental and energy challenges facing the world.
Could LF Energy’s work help set a new precedent for collaboration in an industry where cultural change has lagged behind technological investment? And will this approach deliver tangible change quickly, considering the rapidly shrinking window in which the world has to overcome these challenges?
An open source network
The primary work of LF Energy is to operate as a hub for communication and collaboration within clean energy innovation, aiming to help actors across the sector overcome many of the common challenges they face.
For firms developing new technological approaches, this often involves spreading the word of their work and attracting investment. For investors and supporters, they need to be able to find and assess projects worth investing in.
LF Energy’s work is built on the Linux kernel, the open source operating system that encourages collaboration not just through its functions, but by its design.
“The Linux kernel is really the foundational software that is the plumbing that the planet runs on for digital services,” explains Dr Shuli Goodman, executive director at LF Energy. “When I think about the governance of the kernel, what comes to my mind is that it's one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of human collaboration and cooperation.”
/ The Linux kernel is really the foundational software that is the plumbing that the planet runs on for digital services. /
The foundation’s work has already accelerated development of a number of clean energy projects. These include FledgePOWER, a separate piece of software that industrial companies can use to manage smart devices, conduct predictive maintenance, and maintain safety at their operations, and OpenEEmeter, a smart device used to calculate and assess energy consumption.
These, and several other projects, are heavily focused on data, in the collection and presentation of information to customers, consumers, and producers. They also signal a shift towards transparency and openness in the energy industry befitting such an open source platform.
Applying technology to governance
Yet LF Energy’s work is not restricted to simply playing matchmaker for inventors and investors, with Goodman arguing that its collaborative nature could help change some of the more entrenched aspects of the energy industry.
“Our energy and power system are like a log jam,” she explains. “They don't move, they can't move. You have regulators, energy providers, utilities, [and] so many stakeholders, and they're so entrenched and everyone is accustomed to a very stable system that hasn't really changed very much in 130 years.
“I started to look at the Linux Foundation to understand what it was [and] what's the template that had been developed for the governance around the kernel, [and if this is] something that you could apply to other things.”
/ Everyone is accustomed to a very stable system that hasn't really changed very much in 130 years. /
Many of the challenges associated with delivering a clean energy transition are tied more closely to logistics and governance than necessarily technological innovation. In 2020, the UK set a record with close to 42% of its electricity coming from renewable power sources, suggesting years of investment into clean energy are finally bearing fruit.
Ongoing disputes around the UK’s controversial three million tonnes-per-annum Woodhouse Colliery coal mine however, reveal confused priorities among the country’s decision-makers.
Challenging the punctuated equilibrium
Untangling these contradictory policies, and ushering in cultural and governance changes in a sector that has struggled to keep up with the rate of technological innovation, is a key aim of LF Energy.
"Frankly, I don't see any other way to do it [achieve the clean energy transition],” says Goodman. “At the heart of the Linux Foundation are our principles of interoperability. When you look at the energy transition, you're looking at sector coupling, you're looking at a convergence between multiple industries. So, from where I sit, there's really no other way to do this but in collaboration.”
Goodman also refers to the concept of the “punctuated equilibrium”, put forward in 1972 by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. The two hypothesised evolutionary processes that, when applied to human endeavours, describe how paradigms end and new paradigms emerge as a result of shifting societal goals or a system no longer having the resources to meet its current needs.
/ The paradigm of fossil fuel is really, in my mind, aligned with the kind of global perspective of manifest destiny. /
Goodman applies this theory to the cultural ideas that have dominated the last century of human development, and points to the transition from fossil fuel and our shifting energy infrastructure as a powerful example of this change.
“In the punctuated equilibrium, you'll have something called speciation, [that is to say] one thing to emerge out of an old thing,” she explains.
“The paradigm of fossil fuel is really, in my mind, aligned with the kind of global perspective of manifest destiny, that has been perpetrated all over the world, whether it's colonisation or it's imperialism. And I think that we are at a point where we have the ability to rethink the design of our systems.”
Economic and geopolitical obstacles
Of course, there are challenges with any project of this scale, and especially one that aims to deliver as broad a set of goals as that of LF Energy. Goodman notes that the current energy mix is so entrenched that it is tied at the hip to many of the world’s economies, and that placing an embargo on fossil fuels overnight would lead much of the world to financial and social ruin.
Yet she describes the work of LF Energy as creating a “pre-competitive platform”. The object is not to undermine private investment and profiteering in energy, but create the conditions for such investment to thrive, helping to mitigate some of the perceived economic costs of accelerating the clean energy transition.
/ The role of the Linux Foundation is not to cannibalise capital, but it is to accelerate innovation. /
“I tell people that the role of the Linux Foundation is not to cannibalise capital, but it is to accelerate innovation so that we can shift to increasing levels of abstraction, with regards to software,” says Goodman.
There are also geopolitical challenges too. There is a common idea in countries such as China and India, those with some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, that they have as much right to develop large-scale carbon-intensive industries as did the European and North American powers of the Industrial Revolution.
Creating a collaborative, communicative framework
Curbing one half of the world’s industrial production to make up for the pollution generated by the other half a century ago is a blatantly unfair request. Goodman notes that the complex relationships between politics, economy, and the environment means that discussions that begin as technological ones can quickly spiral into sprawling, geopolitical debates.
“There's a very high correlation between energy access and the mitigation of poverty,” says Goodman. “And conversely, there's a very high correlation between people being willing to do almost anything to increase their standard of living, their children's access to food and water and access to health care.
“So if countries without grids burn fossil fuel, or if China burns fossil fuel because it needs to power an economy that's accelerating, you create the conditions for very complex geopolitical interactions.”
/ It’s a transformation of consciousness, as well as technology. /
Yet she remains optimistic that both the technological basis and cultural emphasis of LF Energy’s work, to create a collaborative, communicative framework for all actors in the clean energy sector, could help mitigate this issue.
The idea of countries putting aside differences and individual needs to tackle an environmental threat that we all face is a lofty one, but one that projects such as LF Energy could help usher in, driving both technological and cultural change as one.
“It's not just about throwing up a few panels, it's a process of really creating new products and services, hardware and software that are commodities that decrease the cost of an electron, and ensure it's being carbon negative, and being able to ship that technology all over the world,” says Goodman. “Therefore, I look at this as a profound global transformation.
“It’s a transformation of consciousness, as well as technology.”