The Biden administration is pushing to energize the United States’ shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy as part of its massive infrastructure upgrade and fight against climate change.
Modernizing America’s aging electricity grid must be part of that push – and new ideas, investments and innovations must be part of the plan.
To date, the United States has more than 10,000 power plants, more than 642,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines and an additional 6.3 million miles of distribution lines.
This robust network has helped fuel massive economic growth in the United States. But we live on borrowed time.
Most of America’s electricity transmission system was built in the 1950s and 1960s and was expected to last 50 years, writes the Government Accountability Office. In total, it is estimated that 70 percent of transmission lines and power transformers in the power grid are at least 25 years old, and the average age of power plants is at least 30 years.
Upgrading such a large hardware system with new hardware is not a viable solution. Instead, the energy sector should follow the lead of the telecommunications sector, which is rapidly moving from a hardware-defined infrastructure to a software-defined infrastructure.
From hardware to software
In telecoms, the rise of smartphones has led to an unprecedented increase in network traffic. New streaming services have taken off. New games have climbed to the top of the bestseller charts and video calls have skyrocketed. For AT&T alone, data traffic on its wireless network increased by more than 470,000% between 2007 and 2019.
“The old network model of sending technicians in trucks with cases of network equipment just couldn’t keep up. So we turned our network into software,” the AT&T blog says. Just as consumer gadgets have turned into applications, “AT & T’s network equipment turns into applications” – both are software that runs on servers.
In the energy sector, rather than sending trucks of machinery to individual power plants, upgrades would be via software, instantly across large geographic areas.
In the energy sector, rather than sending trucks of machinery to individual power plants, upgrades would be done via software, instantly across large geographic areas. Software-defined energy systems would allow utilities to take a much more agile approach compared to traditional proprietary solutions, and they could bring new functions and services to market quickly and efficiently. High data processing would allow smarter responses to weather changes and their impact on transmission loads.
Open source and open standards
However, for a software-defined infrastructure to be deployed optimally, utilities need software built with open standards to enable interoperability and reduce the time it takes for new technologies to integrate into the infrastructure. existing.
Open source software will play a big role, as it did in telecommunications.
Instead of specifying how to build a product, open source software provides a foundation that anyone can build on – and a platform that any business can integrate their products with.
AT&T is a big supporter of open source. He contributes millions of lines of code to the open source community every year. (One million lines of printed code equals roughly 18,000 pages of text.) He also contributes and co-leads open source networking and cloud projects. In addition, it released open source software to accelerate innovation in big data and artificial intelligence.
“Open source has helped us achieve economies of scale, ensure interoperability and accelerate progress through open collaboration,” says AT&T.
One of AT & T’s major open source projects, the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), has generated $ 576 million in development shared by 2,500 developers. The project was hosted by the open source-based Linux Foundation, which provided a vendor-independent home for developers to collaborate on a common architecture for a platform to orchestrate and automate physical network elements. and virtual.
ONAP is a perfect example of open source making it possible to innovate faster than if each entity were to pursue something on their own.
Today, open source LF Energy serves as a home for further open source development of energy innovation. A LF Energy project, SEAPATH, is developing a benchmark design for a future grid automation platform to allow greater flexibility and ability to manage distributed energy sources.
The energy industry lags behind open source
To date, the energy industry has lagged behind others in the use and creation of open source software.
Utilities generally do not share information with each other or collaborate on projects, although the problems each face are very similar: high demand; fluctuating demand; desire for more green energy; and maintenance issues.
But the old ways of working won’t get us where the Biden administration – and many others – want us to go. The list of challenges facing the world, the United States and our future continues to grow when it comes to energy.
Climate change is expected to affect all aspects of the electricity grid, generation, transmission and distribution on demand. More frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns can decrease hydropower in some areas, and increased forest fires can damage transmission lines.
Not only is our energy infrastructure old, but investments are behind schedule. Only $ 2 billion of the $ 14 billion in investments requested in network modernization was approved in 2018, writes McKinsey, revealing the “disconnect between what utilities offer and what regulators deem appropriate.” .