Open source meet your biggest challenge yet: saving the planet

Contributed by Shuli Goodman, executive director of LF Energy 

This past summer, one in three Americans experienced the future of climate change and its repercussions of extreme weather, including hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat domes, and wildfires that now make summer the most dangerous season on earth.

In fact, climate change has helped drive a fivefold increase in the number of weather-related disasters in the last 50 years, research shows. 

As we approach COP26 in November, it is increasingly clear that speeding up the transition to a low-carbon economy is not only essential– but urgent. Global warming is dangerously close to spiraling out of control, a U.N. climate panel said in a recent landmark report

Science clearly reveals that we have a choice: consciousness or catastrophe. Decarbonization is no longer a nice-to-have. It is necessary to create a sustainable future for everyone. And every company, every organization, every piece of the economy, needs to get on board.  

Transforming Fast

But how? How will all these disparate pieces, with their own stakeholder-driven self-interests, come together to meet the climate change challenge we collectively face? 

Three necessary pillars are needed to drive the necessary transformation. They are:

Open Source. By this, we mean software that allows for joint investment and where anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance the code. In the past three decades, open source has moved from the fringe of software development to the core, remaking industries such as telecom and enabling cloud computing, which scaled from a fuzzy idea to the mainstay of modern business in just 15 years. 

In 2020, over 56 million developers worked on the 140 million projects listed on GitHub, the leading platform for open source collaboration. Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, Intel, SAP, and Microsoft, none of which are open source companies, are among the biggest contributors on GitHub. 

Governance. Open source communities can bring the best companies, technologists, technologies, and regulators together in a way that enables collaboration and joint investment in the basic building blocks, the commodity software. Then, companies innovate and compete on top of that building block. Open source doesn’t specify how to build a product or solve a problem, but it provides a governance framework to enable innovation. A commodity is like a digital road that enables our economies and societies to run. The innovation–and how companies make money–comes in what they put on the road. 

Because of open source governance, companies know that their products will work with others on the road — unlike proprietary solutions that often set up tolls and roadblocks. This all requires complete transparency, which is why all of the software is open. Anyone can take from it and contribute to it. In short, governance that leads to transparency helps vendors, utilities, even regulators, make the best investment and development decisions time after time.

Investment. More than $100 trillion will need to be spent over the next three decades to decarbonize the bulk of the global economy and transform how we create products and services and live our lives. 

The good news is that investors are showing up. Last year, a record $501 billion was pumped into the energy transition, according to BloombergNEF. The WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation Index, which tracks shares in 125 global companies that aim to address climate change, hit an all-time high earlier this year.

Around the world, software developers, companies, and organizations are working on cutting-edge, open source software projects that promise to give us the clean power we need to transform our economies. Open source work is being done on electrifying transportation, improving grid automation, reducing grid congestion, onboarding more renewables, enabling better tracking of energy efficiency, increasing grid resilience, improving data monitoring and analysis and optimizing network operations. 

Microsoft is involved in 23 Linux Foundation open source projects and recently joined LF Energy, as well, to further its interest in building open technologies to help decarbonize the electricity grid. Via such collaborations, innovative technologies can get to market faster and then spread faster throughout the energy ecosystem. 

“We really need to work together to build this more sustainable energy electricity infrastructure that we need to move into the future,” said Audrey Lee, Senior Director of Energy Strategy at Microsoft, in an interview with Swapnil Bhartiya of TFiR. “Microsoft cannot do it alone, customers cannot do it alone, and utilities, I don’t think, can do it alone, either.”

Steps to Take

Almost three-fourths of the world’s carbon emissions come from energy use in electricity, heat and transportation.

As such, the first step to transform our economy has to be to decarbonize energy. The second step is to build the infrastructure for electric mobility. The third step is to transform the built environment and the things that consume energy, from entire skyscrapers down to the refrigerators, lights, and heating systems in those skyscrapers.

Inside each one of those pieces are hundreds of thousands of different stakeholders—regulated utilities, private companies, regulators, and policymakers. Those stakeholders are accustomed to old ways of being—not sharing innovations or data, protecting their own slice of the market, and not insisting on interoperability because doing so might endanger their longstanding investments.  

But those old ways of working no longer serve us, and will cripple our ability to meet the urgent challenge of climate change.

Instead, we need the disruptive power of open source technologies enabled by open governance and transparency. 

Getting to 50% decarbonization will be an act of brute industrial strength. Getting from 50% to 100% will require innovations we have not yet considered and brilliant leadership. 

The transition off fossil fuels will need to be well managed to keep power supplies flowing, prices in check and to avoid a backlash against green efforts. Already, power shortages in China and Europe are spurring fears of too much too soon in terms of limits on coal. This at a time when we do not have a moment to lose.

Open source technologies, fueled by an open and transparent global open source community,  can enable the world to imagine, invent, and bring forth a desperately needed sustainable future.

About the author

Shuli Goodman is the founder and Executive Director of LF Energy, a Linux Foundation project that supports open source innovation in the energy and electricity sectors. LF Energy’s ambition is to accelerate the energy transition and the decarbonization of the world’s economies. Having spent the early part of her career enabling some of the world’s largest companies in the world to become Internet-ready, she has brought her digital-first, cross-industry background to the electricity sector. With a doctorate in Organizational Systems focused on innovation and the energy transition, Shuli has a uniquely multi-disciplinary approach to solving complex, interdependent problems. She has nearly three decades experience in the startup and ongoing support of governance and multi-stakeholder engagement bodies that have been convened to enable decision-making and provide steering capacity for high-visibility and/or high-risk initiatives. Her goal is to inspire, train, and enable 10,000 developers, in the next 10 years, to digitally transform the world’s power systems.