Updated: Nov 8, 2020
The need for sustainable solutions, such as access to clean water and affordable energy, in both developing and developed nations is growing rapidly. The United Nations (UN) estimates that 13% of the global population still lacks access to modern electricity, and near the year 2030, around half of the global population will face water stress (UNSDG, 2019). With the problems regarding clean energy, water, and waste management remaining significant global challenges today, the development of clean technology should be of the utmost priority to ensure future generations can inherit the planet. Open source design can lead this development front, by facilitating collaboration and data exchange with engineers and research globally, to build environmentally sustainable solutions.
The Energy Internet
Over the past two decades, technology has increasingly integrated into human life and permeated systems throughout our globe. From email to social networks to voice assistance to 5G internet, the worldwide web has connected people together.
Similar to how we use the internet to communicate with each other instantaneously, we can do the same to exchange energy with one another. This is what the Energy Internet proposes: "a smart, responsive, decentralized network of energy and information that would create millions of jobs worldwide and help to eliminate energy poverty (Yumkella, 2014)." Such a network would utilize multi-directional flows of renewable energy, supported by the confluence of the digital revolution and the rise in big data. This Energy Internet would function under an Internet of Things (IoT) model which creates a network of sensors that have various applications, such as power monitoring and demand-side energy management. Applying IoT to clean technology development aims to create distributed energy systems to optimize the efficiency of energy infrastructure and reduce wastage (NES, 2019).
Whereas a conventional electrical grid uses centralized power stations to generate and distribute electricity, the energy internet uses many small generating facilities (based on alternative energy sources like wind and solar power) to collaborate through real-time energy monitoring and control systems.
Distributing power generation this way allows individuals and households to reduce transmission losses, operate costs, and study the environmental impact of overhead power lines. Moreover, it can also serve as a valuable economic model to incentivize cleaner energy practices.
For example, offices or hospitals can generate their own power and sell the excess back to the electrical grid. Also, hydrogen-powered cars can act as generators when not in use. Energy-storage technologies smooth out fluctuations in supply from wind and solar power.
The Energy Internet can help countries manage their energy demand by allowing power stations to produce high rates of electricity at peak times, and less when consumption requirements are low. This would reduce wasted energy and leverage those cost savings to fund other programs. For example, according to a UK based utility company called National Grid, between 30% - 50% of fluctuations in the electrical grid could be solved by both households and businesses adjusting their demand at peak time (Harrabin, 2016).
Figure 1: Illustration of a potential energy internet workflow (Source - The Economist)
How can open source design help?
As we've discussed in previous blog posts, open source design leverages the brilliant minds of a global community to provide incremental improvements or updates to a product or service that increases its overall quality.
In order to operate an Energy Internet, there would be a number of competing standards, tools, projects, policies, frameworks, and organizations that rely on open access to data and software to build energy systems that easily communicate. Open source and open standards will need to ensure that devices are able to properly interconnect and facilitate back-end processing of enormous volumes of big data that all of these devices will generate. Additionally, the software to support clean technology development should be open source, so that it is able to meet a variety of use-cases for people all over the world who need low-emission energy.
For example, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has shared all the source code for the System Advisor Model (SAM), a renewable energy economic analysis software that "makes performance predictions and cost of energy estimates for grid-connected power projects" (NREL, 2019). Being open source, this software is based on system design parameters that a user specifies. More specifically, it generates performance predictions and cost-of-energy estimates for grid-connected power projects from a long list of renewable energy sources that users can customize, including wind power, biomass power, solar water heating and more. Having an open source capacity, makes the service advantageous in regards to energy monitoring and clean-tech development for the following reasons:
Transparency: Explore the source code to find equations and algorithms so you can see exactly how the models work.
Flexibility: Change the code and build your own versions of SAM to add your own features and capabilities.
Collaboration: Contribute new models, fix bugs, or work with NREL to implement new features that can be added to the NREL versions of SAM.
Source: U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab
Clean energy also has the potential for disruption in low carbon-emitting technologies. There needs to be a new energy-as-a-service business model so that entrepreneurs can build, and customers can use, new technologies without having to invest their own capital or take on energy technology risk.
Some of the existing challenges to traditional approaches in developing clean technology include the following:
Device Maintenance - Companies typically don’t want to send out a technician every day to check how the devices are doing; they prefer to send a technician out to service a particular device or part.
Data - Companies need to collect data per device. They need to be able to store all this data for historical analysis or production forecasting. More often than not, data is not readily accessible and stored in remote storage, therefore causing individuals to physically acquire the data.
Rudimentary tools - A lot of data is still manually collected, either stored in spreadsheets or on paper.
Optimization - Equipment is expensive and fragile, making it even more important to be able to protect their assets as well as maximize their usage.
Source: Power Magazine
Despite these challenges, there is a growing community stepping up to deploy creative, open source solutions. By creating designs using open source software, engineers and entrepreneurs are building products to solve environmental problems either based on do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions, hacking, or problem solving. They’re often skilled makers, designers, or engineers who have embraced a new, open approach to innovation.
For example, Showerloop is a water-filtration system that cleans and recycles shower water in real time. Traditional showers are typically water intensive, literally pouring excessive amounts of water down the drain. The system is designed it to reduce the amount of shower water—and the energy used to heat it—tenfold. By housing the instructions, list of materials, and open hardware and software licenses online, Showerloop enables millions of people to republish, modify, and commercialize their Showerloop or its technology under a comprehensive license agreement. This agreement includes giving credit to Showerloop by linking its website, referring to the documentation and the original makers. Additionally, users must share their documentation if they have made a derivative of the Showerloop or its technologies within the Showerloop online community. By enforcing this license agreement, the founders emphasize the project's need to be open source to allow individuals from all over the world to have access to components, manufacturing methods, modifications, plans and diagrams, CAD and STL files and, documentation for their own unique applications.
How does all of this help mitigate climate change?
Environmental problems are providing fertile ground for open-source DIY, hacking, and problem solving. In this world, designs are invitations to collaborate. The new creators are not novices: They’re often skilled makers, designers, or engineers who have embraced a new, open approach to innovation. The global maker community is made up of people who are compelled to share their projects and insights—and even give up their designs and core intellectual property to get ideas out fast.