Report: An Open Source Smart Grid Primer

1Executive Summary

The smart grid — laying modern IT and communications technologies atop the world’s aging electricity generation, transmission and distribution systems — represents a potential $20 billion market over the next five years, according to Cisco Systems. It also represents a massive shift for utilities around the globe — away from the existing world of proprietary or obscure standards-based legacy technologies and towards an  architecture that will require a much greater degree of interoperability and use of open standards. That imperative is being driven both by government mandate and by the utility industry’s recognition that an open architecture will initiate the type of innovation and cost reduction that have blessed the IT industry writ large. Utilities are driven by the need to upgrade decades-old grid infrastructure to meet rising demand for power, cut costs through automation and to lay the groundwork for handling the distributed renewable power generation resources, smart appliances and other systems they’re relying on to drive efficient use of energy and growth of green, renewable power.

Open-source software — software developed by an open community, with code shared, tested and available for implementation free of charge — represents one potential field of IT innovation for the smart grid. Open-source software is already being used in some limited aspects, primarily in the form of simulation software that allows utilities to test virtual grid technologies before implementing them in the field. In the United States, that work has centered around Department of Energy national laboratories, such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

But the role for open-source software in the emerging smart grid industry could be further expanded. One way for this to happen could emerge amidst the development of openly documented requirements and specifications for the smart grid. In the United States, the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with industry and research partners to define literally hundreds of standards for the smart grid over the next year and a half. Outside the United States, similar interoperability and standards-setting work is in motion under the auspices of national governments, state utilities and international standards-setting bodies such as the IEEE and IEC.

The list of tasks in need of standards is long. It includes residential customer energy monitoring and management, demand response power curtailment systems for largescale commercial and industrial electricity users, electric vehicle communications and management, as well as the smart meter communications and networking infrastructure. Other efforts — distribution grid asset sensors and control systems, transmission grid monitoring and distributed renewable energy generation management — are also underway.

As these openly documented specifications emerge, they could well serve as the foundation for open source efforts in the smart grid. For example, Berkeley Labs’ Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR) is an open, non-proprietary framework allowing demand response signals to be sent in a common manner across disparate communications and control systems. It is being used in several commercial-scale deployments. Open Automated Data Exchange (OpenADE), a similar effort aimed at an open framework for energy usage and pricing data from utility back-office systems, has gotten the attention of Google and Microsoft, as well as a host of startups in the emerging space of home energy management. On the more utility-centric side, Open Phasor Data Concentrator (OpenPDC), an open source-based system for collecting and interpreting data from transmission grid sensors called phasor measurement units, comes from work led by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

The interoperability and standards framework emerging for the smart grid could also serve as the foundation of a plethora of industry efforts that fit the description “open” in one manner or another (although few are truly “open source” in the way that open source advocates would define the term). Google, for example, is developing its PowerMeter platform for monitoring and managing home energy use, and has pledged to make the product available for free. The company hasn’t yet opened the source code itself, but it has opened the application program interface (API) for the platform — a move that rival Microsoft is emulating by releasing, to select developers, a software developers kit (SDK) for Hohm, its own energy management platform. A similar impetus is driving the ZigBee Alliance, the industry group that is promoting the lowpower wireless protocol ZigBee for home energy monitoring and management devices and systems. ZigBee-based systems have gained a good deal of traction in the utility industry’s first-stage smart meter deployments, and its newest iteration of Smart Energy Profile has been adapted to embrace other standards, such as Wi-Fi and XMLbased messaging infrastructures.

Meanwhile, some purer open source efforts are underway in the smart grid from private parties. Silicon Valley startup People Power has used open source methods to develop its Open Source Home Area Network (OSHAN), itself built on a project from DARPA called TinyOS. In March it released a software developers kit that includes free hardware schematics.

At the same time, industry insiders say one as-yet unmet need of utilities — integrating legacy systems to “talk to” new smart grid systems — could be another area for open source penetration. Red Hat, the open source leader, has targeted that side of the smart grid. According to a February 2010 news report, the company joined forces with Colorado-based Green Energy Corp. to develop open-source software to integrate various legacy proprietary utility systems. Red Hat’s experience in serving utilities, such as Kuwait’s Ministry of Electricity & Water and Toronto Hydro, could offer another route for the open source leader to enter the smart grid field.

Emerging standards in the smart grid arena may well open the door to open source efforts. However, open source models will also face barriers in fitting in with traditional utility technology adoption patterns, industry experts say. Utilities are heavily regulated companies that must seek approval from publicly elected state commissions to recover costs and earn profits on investments into their IT and grid infrastructures. Furthermore, utilities have traditionally done business with proprietary technology vendors that have been able to provide extensive testing for their products’ survivability in the field and guarantees to replace failed or malfunctioning equipment. Reliability, rather than cutting-edge technological progress, is the utility industry’s key measure of success. Finally, the fragmented nature of the utility industry — there are some 3,000 utilities in the United States and Canada, serving roles from power generation to retail delivery of electricity — is a barrier to widespread adoption of new technologies.

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