The State of Open Source for the Smart Grid

While open source software on the web is common place (Firefox, WordPress, aspects of Google’s tools) open source is only being used in very limited aspects for the smart grid. Currently the Department of Energy’s national labs have been the earliest proponents of open source, using it to test virtual grid technologies before implementing them commercially.

What’s the reason for the lack of adoption of open source software — software developed and shared by a community and available for free — for the power grid? Well, according to our Open Source Smart Grid Primer, published on GigaOM Pro (subscription required), some of the reasons for the lack of support is that utilities are risk averse, used to working with proprietary gear and vendors, and need to recover costs and earn profits on investments into their grid.

In particular utilities have security and reliability concerns about open source. Mark McGranaghan, a research director at the utility industry group Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) said in the report that simulation is “about as far as you’d want to go” right now on using open-source software on the distribution grid, and a real-world smart distribution grid system, “would come from a vendor who would add a lot of security and other features.”

However, our report found that the role of open source for the smart grid could be expanded much further, and could in particular be used to help legacy utility systems talk to newer smart grid networks, for home and building energy management, and to connect energy data to utility back offices. Chris Knudsen, director of technology innovation for California utility Pacific
Gas & Electric, said in our report that “the more complex a problem gets, the harder it is to meet through proprietary systems.”

There are several early stage open source smart grid projects that have drawn interest from vendors, utilities and government labs. Those programs include Berkeley Labs’ Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR) an open framework
that enables demand response signals to be sent in a common manner. Another is Open Automated Data Exchange (OpenADE), an effort that opens the framework for energy usage and pricing data from utility back offices. And — one of the geekiest — is the Open Phasor Data Concentrator (OpenPDC) project, an open source-based system led by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that amasses and analyzes data from sensors called phasor measurement units.

On the private sector front, People Power, is a startup (that came out of stealth at our Green:Net conference in May) and is using open source to develop its Open Source Home Area Network (OSHAN), which is built upon a project from DARPA called TinyOS. Smart grid startup SmartSynch has its Grid Router product, which is a communications server based on the open source Linux operating system (though that isn’t entirely open sourse). Networking giant Cisco recently released an SDK for its EnergyWise platform for controlling energy use in buildings. And Honeywell bought open source based building control startup Akuacom for an undisclosed sum earlier this year.

The analyst behind our report, Jeff St. John, concludes that the state of open source for the smart grid is unclear but has potential:

Open source software’s potential role in the smart grid remains very uncertain at present. Still, the fact that it is possible at all to apply open source models is a testament to how far the utility industry has come in the past few years.

To check out the full report on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Report: An Open Source Smart Grid Primer

Image courtesy of Rennet Stowe.

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