Can Open Source Power Renewable Energy Innovation?

Over the holidays I sat next to a twelve-year-old. He told me that the future from Ready Player One is very realistic.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well, there’s climate change. And a Global Energy Crisis, because we’ve used up all the fossil fuels. So everybody escapes to virtual reality because the real world is so messed up.”

I nearly fell out of my chair — “That’s horrible! What kind of a world are we leaving you???”

Later I pulled myself together and told him, “Don’t be so pessimistic. The smartest people out there are making the world better, not worse.”

And I really believe it.

For example, look at how the cost of solar energy has fallen:

Source: CleanTechnica.com

and the cost of wind:

Source: WindPowerEngineering.com

and the cost of battery storage:

Source: Forbes.com

Combined together, this is adding to something very very big. Falling solar, wind, and battery storage costs will usher in nothing short of a total energy revolution: The shift to distributed reneable energy. Imagine tapping into renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, etc. — where it is available and needed, instead of big, centralized power plants burning fossil fuels. Open source software will play a key role here, because the shift to renewable energy will require not just cheaper and better machines, but a software revolution as well.

When we go from centralized power plants to renewable energy, energy software will have to do a lot more. Renewable energy lets us create “microgrids,” where energy is produced near where it’s used. But renewable energy is also variable — the sun doesn’t shine at night or on rainy days — and energy storage is not unlimited. So on a microgrid, there are a lot of interesting questions: Should we use the energy generated by the solar panels now or store it in a battery? Could we cut back usage, even temporarily, to balance demand and generation? Do we have energy left over to sell back to the grid? Or should we store it and sell it later in the day, at a higher price? All of these are questions that will need software to answer.

Before we can get there, though, we need to solve a basic problem: Getting Data. An amazing 85% of the commercial buildings in the United States do not have any system to track and measure energy usage. Why? Because those systems are just too expensive and complicated. Even the buildings that do get the data find it hard to make use of them. Imagine managing several buildings, each with different equipment that stores the data in different formats. Then imagine trying to combine all these buildings’ energy use data with renewable energy production data. You know how this story ends.

This is why we need open source software. First, it can help us collect energy data cheaply and efficiently, so every building could start to understand its energy usage. Second, it can put that data in open standards, so that we can bridge across all the manufacturers’ protocols, formats, and data siloes to get a complete picture of what’s going on. Finally, it can let us to use that data to forecast energy usage, manage renewable energy around it, and transact with other microgrids or the larger, utility-run grids outside.

So imagine being able to see, in one place, the production from your solar panels, the energy stored in your batteries, your HVAC and lighting systems, and even your indoor air quality — no matter who made each piece of equipment.

And then imagine open source developers all over the world, with their expertise in machine learning and artificial intelligence, tapping into that data and making energy smarter.

Isn’t that a future worth working for?