Emerging Software Platforms Provide Certainty as Utilities Transition to Renewable Energy
BY NOVID PARSI
PHOTO BY VINCENT MUNDY/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Workers at the Botievo wind farm in Botievo, Ukraine
Utilities need to ensure access to a constant flow of renewable energy no matter what Mother Nature does to limit it. As the need grows to generate more robust data that helps companies more precisely monitor variables that impact supply, demand and delivery, energy providers are finally waking up to the potential of open-source software.
For a sector that has relied on proprietary software that explicitly inhibits change, open source poses both an opportunity and a challenge for utilities project teams hoping to level barriers.
“With open-source technology and software, we can innovate faster,” says Loek Bakker, head of the information management office, Tennet, an electricity transmission system operator, Arnhem, the Netherlands.
Open source helps utilities address a significant challenge with renewable energy: reliability. “When you’re dealing with renewable energy, you’re dealing with variable energy,” says Shuli Goodman, PhD, executive director, LF Energy, San Francisco, California, USA. The coalition works with utilities, energy companies and the power sector on open-source software and standards.
Open-source solutions can predict and harness that variability. Last year Tennet completed a data platform that forecasts both energy use and the weather. The US$5 million, three-year project will deliver a system that helps the utility know when and where to use renewable energy.
“Renewable energy is less predictable. You can’t just switch it on or off like a big power plant,” Mr. Bakker says. “So we have to be better prepared to predict the use of energy and the weather.”
—Loek Bakker, Tennet, Arnhem, the Netherlands
Relying on proprietary solutions simply didn’t generate enough predictive functions, so the team switched to open source to develop the platform.
The shift helped the team forecast outcomes and build on the platform’s general functions to address more specific use cases. For instance, the platform’s data ingestion and streaming analytics functions first had to be in place so that it could predict peak loads. Taking an agile approach allowed the team to work closely and iteratively with product owners and other stakeholders to ensure the platform delivered against business needs. The data platform went live in October.
“The project is now a cornerstone of our whole accelerated energy transition program,” Mr. Bakker says.
Open source also delivers clear business benefits, Dr. Goodman says. Utilities no longer have to spend time or money repeating the same shared core solutions, because open source eliminates software licensing and maintenance costs, “which can be substantial for our projects,” Mr. Bakker says.
Dr. Goodman sees another possible benefit: She suggests that open source tightens security and increases transparency compared with proprietary solutions.
“Security by obscurity is a problem. Open source brings security into the open and attracts ‘eyeballs’ to solve the challenges. But with utilities’ black-box technology, no one knows what’s inside them— what parts are open source and what parts are proprietary—so they can be exploited.”
—Shuli Goodman, PhD, LF Energy, San Francisco, California, USA
But there’s more work ahead. To bolster the acceptance and use of open source for renewable energy, project leaders will have to increase their governing boards’ awareness of the technology and its benefits, Dr. Goodman says.
Open-source projects also create resource challenges: Traditionally, utilities have hired far more power systems engineers than digital experts. So project managers will need to ensure teams have open-source-experienced team members who can also upskill others.
“One risk is the learning curve for the project team when it adopts open-source technology,” Mr. Bakker says. Most organizations still lack proper training and systems integrators for open-source solutions, he adds, “so project managers should take that into account when planning.” PM