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Interview: LF Energy on using open source to ready energy systems for phasing out fossil fuels

With the climate crisis putting increasing pressure on countries to decarbonise their economies, the founder of open source championing LF Energy talks about digitising power networks to be ready for renewables

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Digitally transforming UK power networks for renewable energy

The UK’s over-reliance on overseas sources of oil and gas has been brought into sharp focus in recent months, as energy prices have risen sharply due to a mix of factors.

These include, but are not limited to, the ongoing geo-political unrest caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s extrication from the European Union, and the post-lockdown period prompting a bounce-back in industrial energy usage.

In response, the government has committed to taking action that will, in time, result in more home-grown generated energy being made available to UK consumers and businesses, and, in turn, reduce the amount of influence that global energy security issues have on how much they pay for power.

These actions are outlined in the government’s British energy security strategy policy paper, published in early April 2022, which includes a pledge to build out the UK’s wind and solar power generation capabilities, while accelerating the pace at which oil and gas are phased out of use.

In line with this, the UK will also move to ensure that, by 2050, up to a quarter of the power consumed in the country comes from nuclear sources. It will also invest in measures that make the use of low-carbon hydrogen fuel cells for energy storage and transportation far more common, says the paper.

The policy paper further states that the UK’s energy transition will require a revamp of the transmission networks used to carry power from where it is generated to where it will be used and stored.

These networks are, as the report acknowledges, “complex systems” where “transformation” in the past has been slow to progress – particularly when it comes to bringing new capacity online.

At the same time, the policy paper emphasises the need to build networks with “hyper-flexibility” capabilities so that renewable energy supplies are more evenly matched to demand to prevent wastage.  

This is because the generation of wind and solar energy is notoriously intermittent, so energy networks need to be built to ensure that energy remains abundant and plentiful when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine – especially as electricity demand is likely to double by 2050, according to government forecasts.

Much of the work the UK government is planning to do at network level appears to be geared towards increasing capacity by overhauling planning permission protocols.

However, an open source community – with ties to the Linux Foundation – is also exploring ways to revamp the world’s energy networks, with a focus on virtualisation and software-defined elements to ease society through the transition from relying on fossil fuels to the renewable sources.

“It is a very problematic challenge that we have as humans to change out the engines of our economies”

Shuli Goodman, LF Energy

Known as LF Energy, the initiative started just over five years ago when its founder and executive director, Shuli Goodman, approached the Linux Foundation in search of “someplace neutral and collaborative” where people could come together to build the energy systems and networks of the future.  

“It is a very problematic challenge that we have as humans to change out the engines of our economies and shift them from fossil fuels to a different model that relies on renewable, intermittent energy,” Goodman tells Computer Weekly.

As stated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) April 2022 review of climate science, the world is at a “now or never” point when it comes to limiting the effects of global warming by curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The move to renewables will play an important role in bringing GHG levels down and, in turn, reducing the risk of global temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C during this century. But achieving that will mean taking steps to ensure carbon emissions peak by 2025 and fall swiftly thereafter, the IPCC warns.

“Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5° is beyond reach,” says the IPCC.

“Limiting global warming will require major transitions in the energy sector. This will involve a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels, such as hydrogen.”

Net-zero carbon goals

On this point, Goodman is in total agreement, stating that a large-scale transformation of the way power systems operate is needed to help the world’s economies hit their net-zero carbon goals.

“Power systems lead,” she says. “If you look at the amount of decarbonisation [that needs to happen], change needs to start with power systems, then transportation and then the built environment.

“If we really begin working very intensely on power systems, we can transition to electric mobility and remove fossil fuels from our transportation systems, and then really go about transforming our housing and built environments, so they are using radically efficient resources in terms of lighting, heating, cooling and cooking.”

And with the effects of climate change and global warming already being keenly felt across the globe, it is imperative that the digital transformation of the world’s power systems proceeds at pace, says Goodman.

“If we don’t figure this out, there will be no economy,” she says. “If you’re a multibillion-dollar or trillion-dollar company, and a third of the world’s population – hundreds of millions of people – are moving around because they’re [climate change] refugees, that’s not good for business.”

In terms of what digital transformation means in the context of power systems, Goodman says: “Key to this is going to be: how do we produce, move and consume electrons? That’s where the digital part comes in because you can’t network electrons, like we do bits and bytes over airwaves, because electrons need a physical surface to move across.

“So what we have [at the moment] are systems that are quite brittle and designed so we can basically throw electrons across the line and into the house so that we can turn the lights on or so that businesses can consume massive amounts of energy to drive industrial processes.”

“If we don’t figure this out, there will be no economy”
Shuli Goodman, LF Energy

Energy systems typically exist in an “all-on” or “all-off” state, but the transition to renewables will require networks to be more dynamic and better co-ordinated so that they can manage supply and demand in rapidly changing systems, says Goodman.

“A lot of the work we are doing right now is to ensure that data is able to move and be available to an increasing number of systems that will use data,” she says. “Devices and tools that will enable all of us to manage our energy profiles.”

LF Energy is leaning on its community of open source collaborators to seek out ways to bolster the amount of flexibility in power networks so they are better equipped to cope with intermittent, renewable sources of energy.

This work will require energy networks to become more digitised and less analogue, says Goodman. “Digital has never been more important, and essential, when considering the future of power networks,” she adds.

Also, power networks and systems will need to become far more data-driven, she says. “What we can do is network the metadata about electrons, which gives us increasing dimensions of flexibility to be able to manage intermittent energy.

“For the most part, the plugs that are in our homes and built environments are analogue, so I think we have to really think much more closely about what it would be like to be able to have a paired wire that not only carries electrons, but also carries data about those electrons.”   

Digitally transform the infrastructure

LF Energy’s work has also seen it draw inspiration from how other utility-related industries, such as telecommunications, have sought to digitally transform the infrastructure underpinning their operations.

“Telecommunications is probably the most logical [comparison] because if you look at the internet, if you look at telecommunications, if you look at cloud, if you look at energy, you can see that power systems will inherit the work that was done there – because we’re looking to create a distributed energy system using distributed computing,” says Goodman.

Digging into this subject a little more, Goodman points to the work that AT&T has done around network function virtualisation (NFV), which saw the telecommunications giant set out plans in 2014 to have 75% of its global network classified as being software-defined and controlled by 2020.

For AT&T, this process has allowed it to replace its costly, proprietary network hardware infrastructure with off-the-shelf open source kit and server virtualisation technologies that can host the virtual machines needed to run necessary network functions.

According to AT&T, this setup makes it easier for the firm to respond in real time to fluctuations in demand for network capacity, and speeds up the time it takes for it to roll out new services to customers.

Similar to LF Energy, AT&T has sought out the support of the open source community to help it reach its goals, with the firm known to be a participant in the Linux Foundation and Open Infrastructure Foundation in the past.

“Inertia is the dominant paradigm of the current power system”
Shuli Goodman, LF Energy

It remains to be seen whether energy systems will be able to reach the same level of virtualisation as AT&T has with its network, but Goodman says she is “quite certain at least 50% of the problem LF Energy is trying to solve will be digital”.

Reflecting on the early days of LF Energy, Goodman admits that getting other people to see the value in digitally transforming power systems was not always an easy task.

“I thought what we were focusing on was a no-brainer, but it turned out to be very, very complicated, because there’s a lot of vested interest and there’s a lot of economic value that is captured in the old energy system,” she says.

“There is a lot of technical debt, so it’s not fast moving. Inertia is the dominant paradigm of the current power system.”

Expanding on this point, Goodman says that during the first few years of LF Energy’s existence, it became clear that the organisation was “considerably ahead of the market” in terms of what it was seeking to do.  

French power transmission system operator RTE Energy saw the value instantly in what LF Energy was setting out to achieve, says Goodman.

The company joined forces with LF Energy after a “relatively small group of its engineers” realised that without urgent intervention, there was no way power systems could transform quickly enough to accommodate the shift to renewables, she says.

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Fast forward to today, and Goodman says the organisation has “software in the field” in California, the Netherlands and the UK, where it is helping to co-ordinate demand to deliver flexibility to the grid.

These in-the-field deployments include its green energy hub, OpenGEH, which is designed for use by utility companies that want to keep tabs on electricity production and consumption levels, so they can pinpoint when would be the best time to bring more renewable energy onto the grid.

“This is being used in Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands and Germany,” says Goodman, and is an example of how digitisation is helping to accelerate the transition of these countries away from fossil fuels.

Another product that is also being keenly used in the field by utility providers in France is known as OperatorFabric. This is designed to help organisations aggregate notifications from multiple applications within their systems on a single screen, so these alerts can be acted on.

“These are the beginning of LF Energy using open source software, open specifications and open hardware design as a suite of tools to help the world go faster, together,” she adds.

Domino effect

As well as a growing list of real-world deployments for LF Energy technologies, the organisation has experienced a “domino effect” of organisations wanting to join its community of contributors and users, including household-name big-box retailers, manufacturing giants and tech firms.

The reason for that, says Goodman, is because these firms are starting to realise that how they manage their energy needs will hugely influence how they are able to meet their sustainability goals and pledges.  

“Every company on this planet is going to have to, in one way or another, become an energy company,” she says, “in that every company need to have somebody whose job it is to think about ‘how does my company consume, provide and participate in the creation and usage of electrons?’”

Every company in the world will find itself under increasing pressure to decarbonise its operations to minimise the impact of global warming, which will require all of these firms to shift their economic priorities, says Goodman, particularly as rising energy costs mean that power is becoming an increasingly big overhead for companies.

Therefore, they will need someone in place to ensure they are operating in a more energy-efficient way, while also ensuring their environmental responsibilities are met.

“The cost of energy is skyrocketing,” says Goodman. “We need to accelerate the production of renewable energy and storage, and – even more importantly – we have to radically shift our priorities with regard to energy efficiency.

“We have to think from lower-wattage devices and appliances to higher-efficiency windows, doors and insulation. This is the century of the electron. We need to treat it with respect.”

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