How open source technology collaboration can help in the fight against climate change

In this guest post, the founder and executive director of non-profit open source-championing body LF Energy, Dr. Shuli Goodman, talks about how technology collaboration is needed to tackle climate change

Companies are playing an increasingly big role in tackling climate change, but they’ll go much farther, faster, if they collaborate on technological innovation than if they go it alone.

As climate change threatens the very existence of the planet, the role of companies to battle back is finally hitting a fever pitch because they recognise that the future of the global economy is a low carbon one.

Over 20% of major companies have committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2050 with the average aiming for 2028. Major car makers and light truck manufacturers have finally embraced the idea of electric vehicles. Industry coalitions are forming to boost emissions-cutting hydrogen generated with renewable power. Also, electricity companies in the Race to Zero aim to reach over 750GW of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030 – enough to provide power to almost 1 billion people.

None of that is enough given the crisis at hand, only made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis, already a human catastrophe, could also slow the global energy transition as the war threatens global supplies of metals used in manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries. The war in Ukraine is showing us just how difficult the geo-political terms of decarbonisation will be to a changing world.

Despite that additional challenge, the commitment of private enterprise will still be key to tackling climate change. To hypercharge efforts, companies will go farther, faster by collaborating on technologies, especially around open source software.

“We really need to work together to build this more sustainable energy electricity infrastructure that we need to move into the future,” said Audrey Lee, Senior Director of Energy Strategy at Microsoft, in an interview with Swapnil Bhartiya of TFiR when discussing the value of open source and collaboration to decarbonise electrical grids. “Microsoft cannot do it alone, customers cannot do it alone, and utilities, I don’t think, can do it alone, either.

The same sentiment was shared by the UK.’s ex-Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude of Horsham in a piece in Computer Weekly. He noted that open source and business-government collaboration would be critical because “taking an open, collaborative approach to tackling the urgent and complex issue of climate change would garner faster results compared with invested parties all trying to do their own thing.”

Partnering for change

Partnerships may be especially important in the energy ecosystem, which enables everything else in our economy to run. It is coming to terms with the notion that sustainability makes the most business sense given the falling costs of renewable power.

To date, energy companies have largely operated in silos. As climate change hits crisis proportions, everyone is recognising the need to operate in new ways. Accenture recently titled a blog, “Collaborate in ecosystems to win in the new energy future,” which was actually addressing the needed transformation of oil and gas players. “In the new energy future, collaboration will dictate competitive advantage,” Accenture wrote.

That same collaborative strategy is needed by companies pushing for the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

One such collaboration exists in Europe, involving Alliander, the biggest distribution system operator in the Netherlands, and RTE, operator of the largest transmission grid in Europe. The companies have long worked together to pursue decarbonisation of the global energy ecosystem.

The pillars of their successful collaboration illuminate how other companies can craft successful collaborations. Those pillars are:

  • Identify common problems. Alliander serves 26,000 companies and three million households with either electricity or gas. RTE operates the extra high and high voltage power grid. While in different businesses, they still faced the same problem: how to accommodate more renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, in infrastructures not originally designed for them at speed and scale. Soon, the conversation turned to “how can we collaborate?,” says Arjan Stam, director of System Operations at Alliander.
  • Collaborate on enabling technology. Both Alliander and RTE wanted to develop and build software applications to help them manage the energy transition and enable greater, faster adoption of renewables. The interface of future power systems between the distribution and transmission systems needs to be smooth,  responsive to market signals and directed by software that’s not even built yet. Flexibility will be key to meeting ever expanding and changing grid conditions and needs.
  • Find more partners. No one company can make an appreciable mark on arresting climate change, nor can any one partnership or even global alliance. Companies need partners and more partners to develop enabling technologies that benefit all. That bottoms up approach will complement the top down approach of governments and regulatory bodies setting climate change goals and policies.

RTE had a long history in doing open source software, which invites anyone to contribute to the software and is then available for anyone to use. Alliander was more steeped in building proprietary software for its use only.

Given the crisis of climate change and desire to decarbonise the grid, Alliander knew it had to speed up its development effort. Its choice was to do it alone, like before, or “use what was already there and make it better,” Stam says.

Under the umbrella of the non profit LF Energy, which nurtures development of open-source software to decarbonise the energy infrastructure, the companies joined forces. Today, Alliander and RTE work together on open source software solutions around what RTE’s open-source manager, Lucian Balea, calls  “the common plumbing.”

“Sharing forces and sharing brains today will help us to be in a better position tomorrow because the changes that we are talking about are huge transformations,” Balea says.

The power grid is effectively the largest machine on earth. To overhaul it will require collaboration among the entire energy ecosystem. But corporate collaboration can go beyond the energy ecosystem. By finding partners and collaborating where it makes sense, while competing where it doesn’t, companies will make more progress, faster, at arresting climate change and safeguarding their future – and that of the planet.

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