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How open source software could revamp the aging electrical grid

The energy sector should follow telecommunications with software-defined infrastructure rather than hardware-centric updates.

Open Source Software

The Biden administration is pushing to turbocharge the U.S. shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy as part of its massive infrastructure upgrade and battle against climate change.

Modernizing the aging U.S. electrical grid needs to be part of this push — and new thinking, investment and innovation must be part of the plan.

To date, the U.S. has over 10,000 power plants, more than 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 6.3 million more miles of distribution lines. 

That robust grid has helped power massive U.S. economic growth. But we’re living on borrowed time. 

Most of the U.S. electricity transmission system was built in the 1950s and 1960s and was expected to last 50 years, the Government Accountability Office writes. All told, an estimated 70 percent of the electricity grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are at least 25 years old, and the average age of power plants is at least 30 years old.

To upgrade such a vast hardware-based system with new hardware is not a viable solution. Instead, the energy sector should follow the lead of the telecommunications sector, which is rapidly moving from a hardware-defined infrastructure to a software-defined one.

From hardware to software

In telecom, the rise of smartphones drove an unprecedented surge in network traffic. New streaming services took off. New games surged to the top of the bestseller charts, and video calls soared. For AT&T alone, data traffic on its wireless network grew more than 470,000 percent between 2007 and 2019.

"The old network model of sending technicians out in trucks with crates of network gear just couldn’t keep up. So, we turned our network into software," AT&T’s blog states. Just as consumer gadgets turned into apps, AT&T’s "network gear is turning into apps" — both are software running on servers.

In the energy sector, rather than having trucks of gear going to individual power stations, upgrades would come via software, instantaneously across large geographic regions.

In the energy sector, rather than having trucks of gear going to individual power stations, upgrades would come via software, instantaneously across large geographic regions. Software-defined energy systems would enable utilities to take a far more agile approach in contrast to traditional proprietary solutions, and they could bring new functions and services to market quickly and efficiently. High data processing would enable smarter responses to changing weather and its impact on transmission loads.

Open source and open standards

For a software-defined infrastructure to be optimally deployed, however, utilities need software built with open standards to enable interoperability and to reduce the time it takes for new technologies to integrate with existing infrastructure. 

Open source software will play a big role, as it has in telecom. 

Instead of specifying how to build a product, open source software provides a foundation that anyone can build atop — and a platform with which any company can integrate their products.

AT&T is a big open source proponent. It contributes millions of lines of code into the open source community annually. (A million lines of printed code is about 18,000 pages of text.) It also contributes to and co-leads open source networking and cloud projects. Also, it released open source software to expedite innovation in the areas of big data and artificial intelligence. 

"Open source has helped us to drive economies of scale, ensure interoperability and expedite progress through open collaboration," AT&T states.

One of AT&T’s big open source endeavors, the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), resulted in $576 million of shared development by 2,500 developers. The project was hosted by the open source-driven Linux Foundation, which provided a vendor-agnostic home for developers to collaborate on a common architecture for a platform to orchestrate and automate physical and virtual network elements.

ONAP is a perfect example of open source enabling innovation faster than if each corporate entity pursued something on their own.

Today, the open source LF Energy serves as a home to further open source development of energy innovation. One LF Energy project, SEAPATH, is developing a reference design for a future grid automation platform to enable greater flexibility and capacity to handle distributed energy sources.

Energy industry lags on open source

To date, the energy industry has lagged behind others in terms of using and creating open source software. 

Utilities don’t typically share information with each other or collaborate on projects — even though the problems that each one faces are very similar: high demand; fluctuating demand; desire for more green power; and maintenance issues.

But old ways of working won’t get us where the Biden administration — and many others — want us to go. The list of challenges facing the world, the U.S. and our future continue to grow as they pertain to energy.

Climate change is expected to affect every aspect of the electricity grid — from generation, transmission and distribution to demand. More frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may diminish hydroelectricity in some areas, and increasing wildfires may damage transmission lines. 

Not only is our energy infrastructure old, but investment is running behind schedule. Only $2 billion out of $14 billion in requested grid modernization investments were approved in 2018, McKinsey writes, revealing the "disconnect between what utility companies are proposing and what regulators see as appropriate."

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