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Open source energy

Open source technology could play an important role in the shift towards energy democracy. Some pioneers are already leading the way, reports Kim Bryan

October 19, 2013
7 min read


Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.


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If we are to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we need a rapid transition to a clean, efficient renewables-based energy system. For that transition to happen there needs to be a decisive shift in power towards people, communities, small local businesses and workers, and towards energy democracy. Among other things, this will have to involve a transfer of resources and infrastructure from private hands to a democratically-controlled public sector and the restructuring of energy systems towards decentralisation.

There is a great deal of information out there about the development of community energy schemes and potential financing. There are a number of inspiring campaigns that highlight the role of the large energy companies, such as No Dash for Gas and the Tar Sands Network. Perhaps less well known is the role and importance of open source technologies in building a democratic energy future.

Open source is a philosophy that promotes universal access via free licence to a product’s design or blueprint, and universal redistribution of that design or blueprint, including subsequent improvements to it, by anyone. By placing the production, development and modification in the hands of the people, open source technology diminishes the control of large companies over our technological development.

‘The beauty of open source technologies and processes is that we can all get involved in developing the idea, whether that be as a geeky developer hacking new code or as a householder testing out kit,’ says Jonathan Atkinson of Manchester’s Carbon Co-op, a community-focused organisation that helps members make radical reductions in household power usage.

The term ‘open source’ denotes a commitment to doing things in a way that shares knowledge, encouraging free redistribution and access to product design and implementation. There is a wide range of open source projects. The best known include computer software such as the Mozilla Firefox web browser and operating systems such as Android and Linux – but there are many others, even some beers.

There is also an increasing number of inspiring open source energy projects. Examples include Onawi, an organisation that aims to make designs of wind turbines freely available to all, and Riversimple, who have made their design for hydrogen cars open source.

Energy monitors

Another example is OpenEnergyMonitor, set up by a group who describe themselves as ‘an active, open research community of energy enthusiasts, engineers, programmers and makers’. Energy monitors help people become more aware of their own energy use and of energy systems; the group has developed an open source monitor that can be assembled and built at home. Using open source technology such as the Raspberry Pi micro-computer and Arduino programming language, the monitors are flexible, modular and robust, and can collect data from a variety of sensors: from electricity usage to gas, humidity, temperature and even carbon dioxide, which is an indicator of air flow and therefore of the draughtiness of a house.

The open energy monitors are currently being used as part of a scheme set up by the Carbon Co-op. As well as retrofitting energy-saving measures such as external wall insulation and solar panels, the Carbon Co-op had been grappling with how to empower members through a better understanding of energy use. Rather than collaborate with one of the big technology companies it chose to enter into a partnership with OpenEnergyMonitor.

Matt Fawcett from the Carbon Co-op has been running the build process with participants from the local community. ‘Building the monitors is a steep learning curve for those not familiar with the software but once people are over the initial scariness of being exposed to the code it’s a case of following simple step-by-step instructions. Anyone can get a monitor up and running and then if their interest and confidence grows get more involved in adapting and improving the systems.’

Carlos Alonso from OpenEnergyMonitor says that ‘energy monitoring is fundamental to changing the way that humans behave with regard to energy consumption. Open source monitoring hardware and software empowers the user to be in full control of when, how and where energy data is logged – this is in complete contrast to other types of energy monitors available.’

Open hardware design

Renewable energy systems require both software and hardware. Although open source development has been related mainly to software production, there are initiatives in the open design of hardware.

Onawi is a non-profit organisation that is aiming to make wind turbine designs freely available to all through an open source co‑operative development process. ‘By promoting open collaboration among all stakeholders throughout the product life‑cycle we aim to make the turbines reliable and well suited to their end use. This process will also harness third-party improvements and innovations and ensure they remain publicly available under an open licence as the foundation to future designs,’ says Javier Ruiz, a developer at Onawi.

Onawi believes strongly that a clean transition must be a just transition. It is currently working with residents of the small town of La Tortuga in Peru to develop a community wind project. The project not only involves installing wind turbines but also developing a small manufacturing industry in the area to build them.

Javier Ruiz explains that by developing local capacity for the manufacture, deployment and maintenance of suitably sized systems, designs are encouraged that are specifically suited to the local conditions and needs. Onawi aims to engage in technology transfer projects, which bring benefit to local communities through the creation of industrial capacity and social enterprise, in addition to supplying low carbon energy.

Smart grids

As well as hardware and software, open source philosophy can be used to develop standards by which technologies can be deployed. The OpenADR Alliance is a non-profit corporation created to foster the development, adoption and compliance of the open automated demand response (OpenADR) standard for smart grids.

A smart grid delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers using digital technology with two-way communications to control appliances. So, for example, when there is a surplus of energy in the grid a signal sent to a washing machine will start the wash cycle. This type of communication is called ‘demand response’. It allows generators and loads to interact, coordinating demand to flatten spikes. This helps maintain grid reliability and enable customers to cut their energy bills by telling low priority devices to use energy only when it is cheapest.

The OpenADR Alliance was created to standardise, automate and simplify demand response to enable utilities to cost-effectively meet growing energy demand and customers to control their energy future. Current systems are not standardised.

Sixty utilities and controls vendors have already announced or deployed OpenADR-based systems across the US and internationally. Currently the OpenADR standard is only available in the US but the OpenADR Alliance is submitting the OpenADR 2.0 specification to the International Electrotechnical Commission as an international standard.

There is an urgent need for more energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. By making the software and designs for these systems open to all, an enormous capacity is opened up to develop small-scale manufacturing, create jobs, stimulate local economies and at the same time reduce carbon emissions and build cooperation, community resilience and a greater sense of well being.

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Kim Bryan works for the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales.


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