Defining Future Power Grids with Open Source Software

Article By : George Leopold

Distributed energy sources are forcing utilities to rethink their antiquated grid operations. Some are embracing open source frameworks.

If a Linux Foundation effort succeeds, the next-generation power grid will be based on open source tools using commodity software and hardware. That software-defined approach is promoted as encouraging joint development and investment while helping to pry open the black boxes that underpin today’s decidedly closed and overburdened power grids.

The foundation’s power initiative, LF Energy, seeks to apply open-source principles that have transformed other industries to the monolithic and moribund electricity generation and transmission sector.

“We’re using a brute-strength approach to producing electricity,” says Shuli Goodman, LF Energy’s executive director. “Software-defined infrastructure is a reality. It abstracts complexity, and the cost of using it eventually goes to zero.”

There is urgency in Goodman’s evangelism. Rolling blackouts, aging utility infrastructure contributing to California wildfires, soaring demand for power as electrification of transportation and consumer electronics expands. From EVs to the “vampire loads” generated by home electronics, the current transmission grid is fast approaching the breaking point.

“We need to be able to do something quickly, and the cost of not doing it quickly makes it more likely that by the time my grandsons are old enough they will think of summer as a really terrifying season,” Goodman laments.

Hence, the energy effort seeks to hastily assemble a developer community around open source components that could be deployed as part of microgrids in the form of everything from EVs to smart phones. That approach would help take at least some of the strain off of transmission infrastructure that currently lacks the capacity to handle plentiful but largely inaccessible renewable energy sources.

Grid components like transformers and substations are prime candidates for virtualization, the group says. Southern California Edison (SCE) is working with LF Energy on efforts to developed virtualized substations that could be scaled up to the hundreds of thousands. Under current rate structures, utilities must enter capital markets to raise millions of dollars to build new, mostly analog, substations, then pass those costs along to rate payers.

Shuli Goodman

“I imagine one day that there will be little substations—rather than having 900, [SCE] may have 900,000, and then they will network those [components] and they’ll be based on commodity hardware and commodity software,” Goodman said in an interview. “That will act as the edge node router that will allow for a vastly distributed grid.”

Such a culture change will take time, she acknowledges, since most utilities “don’t have the internal capacity to do it. They don’t know how to consume open source, they only know how to go to a vendor.”

An LF Energy project dubbed SEAPATH aimed at transmission system operators seeks to develop a reference design for a future grid automation platform. The resulting control infrastructure would provide greater flexibility and capacity to handle distributed energy sources.

It also addresses congestion issues faced by utilities unable to handle distributed energy sources, prompting transmission operators to curtail energy inputs from wind and solar generation.

Electric utilities are relative newcomers to the open source community. Early adopters, mostly in Europe, have noticed how decentralization, or disaggregation, of industries such as telecommunications has encouraged innovation.

The utility industry is slowly moving toward automated controls as energy generation is distributed, making transmission more complex. “With the energy transition and the fact that we are moving to a more complex system with more distributed players, distributed energy sources [and] more distributed levers controlling the grid, we need to rethink our control architecture,” said Lucian Balea, R&D program director and open source manager at RTE, the French electricity transmission system operator, and an LF Energy participant.

“We want to unlock the capability to innovate, to bring advanced and adaptive functions to the edge of the grid,” including power substations, Balea added.

There is still plenty of room for hardware manufacturers on a software-defined grid. For example, Goodman said consumer devices and industrial systems could be designed to permit arbitrage scenarios in which energy demand is shifted to off-peak hours.

“We have to come up with a more sensible relationship of our devices and things to the power systems, and that requires a kind of radical energy efficiency,” she said.

As they western U.S. is engulfed in wildfires fueled by record high temperatures, groups like LF Energy insist there is little time or energy to waste. A key step is decarbonizing the power grid through greater use of distributed and renewable energy sources. “We are in love with [an energy infrastructure] that is going to kill us,” warns Goodman.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

George Leopold has written about science and technology from Washington, D.C., since 1986. Besides EE Times, Leopold’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, and other publications. He resides in Reston, Va.


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