Are Commercial Buildings Ready for Open-Source Energy Management?

openlynxPicture the lighting and chillers of commercial buildings being controlled by a system designed in the same way as Mozilla’s Firefox — through open source, the collaborative method of developing software source code. While we’ve covered open source-based home area energy management systems, the OpenLynx project, started by Anno Scholten, vice president of business development for NovusEdge, is looking to tackle the underlying software that controls the energy consumption of massive commercial buildings.

On the expo floor of the Connectivity Week conference in Santa Clara, Calif., on Tuesday, Scholten plans to show off a demo of the project’s first application built on OpenLynx: a smart meter reading service implemented in 26 commercial buildings by a company in Washington, D.C. Scholten told us after a roundtable talk on Monday that this first application will help prove the open-source building automation technology. On June 22, OpenLynx plans to launch the next version of the source code, available here.

How can open source help commercial building energy management? Scholten started the project about a year ago to help bring collaboration and innovation to the building automation industry, which he says is “limited by the small number of gateway technologies available and [has] no common development platform to the next level.” The building automation industry, controlled by large companies like Siemens (s SI), Johnson Controls (s JCI) and Honeywell (s HON), has created automation technologies that work well on their own but largely live in silos (each one is based on a different non-compatible platform) and for the most part, don’t rely on the common language of Internet Protocol. Scholten says the next step for the building automation industry is to take a cue from the IT industry and develop open-source projects like Asterisk (an open-source version of a standard telephone network).

Peter Michalek, who has been working on OpenLynx for a few months, pointed out in the talk on Monday that open source can bring down the costs of the energy management systems dramatically and can make them more advanced, because they will be built on already-established basics. He said the licensing agreement of OpenLynx is “liberal,” explaining that a developer can do anything s/he wants with it, but has to publish the benefits created back into the system. Karsten Wade, the self-described community gardener for Red Hat’s open-source community, who also sat on the roundtable, says the benefits of open source include reducing the total cost of ownership and enabling user-driven innovation.

Above all, the development of open-source tools for the commercial building automation industry suggests how valuable the energy information housed in these commercial buildings has suddenly become. IT companies want to manage it, using the tools they’ve spent years building (see Adura Technologies). As the panelists pointed out, the lighting, thermostat and HVAC energy information from commercial buildings used to only be seen by the building manager, but as the smart grid gets built out, energy information needs to be pulled outside of the building walls. Utilities are looking to provide rebates for commercial demand response, and companies are looking to cut energy to meet regulations and save money. As this shift happens the easiest way to release the information is through already established standard protocols.

Will building automation firms actually embrace open source OpenLynx? Not likely, at least for a very long time. There are hurdles ahead, such as just getting the word out to interested developers in a new market, as well as making sure products are high enough quality with compliance testing and certification. The incumbents won’t likely be too keen with the project, either. Scholten writes:

I expect there will be many who will dismiss open source as low quality developments not suitable for commercial deployment in mission critical facility systems. I also think that some will feel threatened by the disruptive nature of open-source developments and believe that their current technologies provide better capabilities than any first generation open source solutions. This is also what Avaya, Northern Telecom and others thought when Digium released their first generation PBX based on open source Asterisk.

But the OpenLynx project will have an effect on the industry, even if it’s just in terms of ideology. And who knows, maybe it will follow in the footsteps of Firefox, which has been slow to gain market share, but held early mindshare for years. It only takes a few big supporter companies to help spread the word.