Open source and green tech: A perfect match

In this guest post, Justin Griffith, CTO of supply chain software company StayLinked explores how companies can implement open source technologies as a stand-alone business model

Solar technology has been around for more than a hundred years. In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter famously had 32 solar panels installed on the White House to amplify his pledge to ensure that the renewable energy consumption of the United States reached 20% by the year 2000.

In the 43 years since, the solar panels from the Carter administration are spread across museums throughout the world and the United States has just hit the 20% renewable energy consumption mark this year. But why aren’t solar panels on every building in the world? Why aren’t roofs made entirely from photovoltaic (PV) panels? Why aren’t we doing a better job of harnessing the power of the sun to make energy cheaper and cleaner to combat climate change?

Open source in the energy industry

It probably comes as no surprise that the energy industry isn’t particularly motivated to change without a tremendous push from regulators. There doesn’t seem to be much sharing of information regarding innovation either. And when it comes to solar, the lack of adoption usually comes down to one thing: consumer expense. If you’ve considered buying solar and have gone down the path of purchasing a system, you were likely made aware of the fact that the technology relies on multiple things, particularly the physical location and directional positioning of the structure on which you want to install the panels. Even in optimal conditions, the cost for most is prohibitive. But how is it, that after more than 40 years, we still haven’t evolved to the point of mass adoption, especially when there is so much to be gained? What has kept solar so expensive to the consumer as other renewable energies, such as wind, continue to gain ground?

As mentioned in a previous post, the 3D printing industry relies heavily on open source technology to work. It handled the Covid pandemic as the crisis it was and, in some ways, continues to be. One such company, Prusa 3D Printers, built an entirely open-source 3D printing model. The community enhancements drive innovation in the products that they make money building, supporting, and selling consumables to its users.

Users are still free to source their own parts, print their own enhancements, and collaborate with a large community of users to achieve better results and capabilities from the Prusa platform. Prusa offers the shortcut of selling you all the parts and you can build it yourself, or for more money, they will build, tune, test, and guarantee the printer’s performance when it arrives. Prusa is one of the most famous names in the 3D printing industry.

Sustainable technologies and open source

Likewise, there are companies and organisations, such as The Appropedia Foundation, focused entirely on the proliferation of sustainable technologies using open-source designs and technologies. Lonny Grafman and Joshua Pearce authored a book called ‘To Catch The Sun’. An open-source project in partnership with The Appropedia Foundation, and Humbolt State University, written to highlight the many projects and contributors to the Appropedia Foundation’s wiki page.

Then there’s Unbound Solar. While not officially open-source, they do market themselves as a resource for the DIY solar community. Much like Prusa’s business model, they offer components for DIY projects as well as educational resources. But they also offer design services to help people who’d like to install it themselves but would like a running start from experienced solar professionals. All the way up to an offering of end-to-end design, install, and service with one of their team.

Unlocking open source technology

And this final approach may be the key to unlocking the acceptance and use of any open-source technology: Offering a spectrum of products and services wrapped around the technology itself. Giving the option for the open-source community to roll their own, while supporting people with less skill, time, and/or risk tolerance to utilise and expand the technology without having to learn to build it from scratch. Service those who want the technology but don’t want to become experts in every facet. Having an option for people who want to design but don’t want to swing the hammer, as well as options for people who would just love a set of plans to follow, gives open source a much better chance of being a fit beyond those with the time and propensity for going all in.

This should be the focus of most new technologies, open-source or otherwise. Cutting the learning curve for laypeople, lowering the barriers to entry, and offering on-going support to bolster confidence in technologies that we want people to adopt. Many technology companies tend to focus on the upsides of their offering, but there is also a tendency to gloss over the burdens or risks associated with even trying a technology.

Many of the sales pitches around professionally installed solar, for example, involve allaying fears associated with the technology as a whole with questions like “What happens to my house when there’s no direct sunlight for days?” Or “What happens if my backup battery fails”. These are all valid concerns that traditionally the open-source route would require people to solve for themselves. People would need the confidence to know where all the gaps are before leaping in because the fridge that keeps their food cold, the air conditioning that keeps their family comfortable, and the wall plug that runs their continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines all depend on it.

It’s counter-intuitive to think that a technology professional’s job doesn’t (or maybe at least shouldn’t) centre on just finding better and better technology solutions. The job is largely to focus on the people using those technologies and what drives them. The human element is almost always where a great new tech will live and die. And humans are vastly more moved by fear of failure than the hope of success. So, companies that can effectively answer the biggest question facing all emerging technologies; “What do I do and who can I call if it all goes terribly wrong?” stand to gain the most from all the promise that open-source green tech has to offer.

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