Open-source software company in Sebastopol drives a clean energy superhighway
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The 21st century electricity grid must be a swift superhighway where electrons and data zip in nanoseconds to where they’re needed, in contrast to today’s hodgepodge of proprietary toll roads that barely talk to each other.
That’s the vision that drives Shuli Goodman, the executive director of LF Energy, an international organization she founded in 2019 to build the foundation for that superhighway.
“The power grid is the biggest, most sophisticated machine on the planet. We have to figure this out fast, to insure a smooth economic and social transition,” Goodman said during a recent conversation at her Sebastopol home.
Today’s grid runs largely on fossil fuels produced by giant power plants and delivered by utilities to homes and businesses.
To eliminate those fossil fuels and their impact on climate, Goodman said she believes tomorrow’s grid needs to deliver only the amount of power needed, only where and when it’s needed, from millions of scattered carbon-free resources like solar and battery farms, rooftop solar, electric vehicle charging stations, windmills, biofuel and hydrogen plants, geothermal fields, hydropower and nuclear plants.
That’s going to require the grid to incorporate communications software that can tell the grid in real time where the power is needed, where it can be acquired, where it’s not needed, who pays, who gets paid and how much. Customers and their devices will need to know minute-by-minute how much electricity they’re using, when they’re using it, how much it costs and how to make changes.
Further, this high-tech conversation must be reliable, safe and affordable.
“The task ahead of us is huge,” Goodman said.
A critical piece of the solution is open-source software, say Goodman and the software developers worldwide who are helping to create open source under the LF Energy umbrella.
Open-source software is built by developers on a public platform. Any qualified developer can contribute. The end product is freely usable by anyone. With 19 projects underway, LF Energy is a leading home for open source designed for power markets. Current projects handle such tasks as congestion management, virtual power plants and load forecasting.
The idea is that a trusted superhighway can be built faster and cheaper when many are building it in public, not in secret proprietary chunks, and speed matters in today’s race against global warming and a grid exploding in size.
On top of the open-source foundation, innovators can then stack proprietary software that they develop for commercial use.
“Our desire is not to disrupt capitalism, it’s to create a surge of innovation,” Goodman said. “This is how the Internet was built. This is how telecommunications was transformed. In 2022 any given software stack will be 80% open source,” Goodman said.
Goodman, 64, said she founded LF Energy because of an imaginary conversation she had two decades ago with her unborn grandchildren who asked her what she did during the great transition from fossil fuels to decarbonization.
“That set me on a journey,” she said.
She started a green MBA, then transitioned to a doctorate where she studied how the future emerges during times of collapse. Early in her career she became an internet consultant to major corporations.
Then one day, doing work for the California Public Utilities Commission, she discovered the governance model of the Linux community and had an epiphany, she said.
The Linux operating system was software developed in the early 1990s by a computer science student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, and openly shared online so other developers could contribute.
Contributions poured in, and today Linux is the basis for much of the world’s computing, according to the Linux Foundation in San Francisco, which hosts and supports Linux developers and their open-source projects.
“The Linux operating system is one of the most elegant examples of collective action on the planet,” said Goodman, who suddenly saw how open source could speed transformation of the grid.
She talked the Linux Foundation into hosting LF Energy, an open-source foundation focused on the power sector.
Today LF Energy has more than 700 contributors working worldwide on its open-source projects. Work on the software is open to anyone, and it’s free. LF Energy also has 67 member organizations that provide input, financing, code and software developers. Most of the developers working on LF Energy projects are employees of member companies, Goodman said.
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