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Smarter Grids Pave the Way for More Open Grids

Linux Foundation bets open software will underpin grids of the future

3 min read
Lightbulbs making up a brain and working together
Illustration: iStockphoto

As the sun sets across the Netherlands, streetlights twinkle on, town by town. But it’s not in lockstep: some city managers can set their lights to respond to local sunset time or a schedule of their own or they can control individual lights for local events. That’s because in 2017 those cities adopted a smart grid software-powered service built by Dutch public utility Alliander that may be the first open smart grid platform in everyday use.

Before, these cities could only operate their lights collectively because they used ripple control technology, a widespread control method that sends a pulse over the grid. While smarter control of streetlights may be handy for cities and save them some energy and cash, Alliander has also re-used the platform to manage a growing number of additional services and, earlier this month, placed it under the umbrella of LF Energy , part of the Linux Foundation .

“Utilities want to get rid of the black box,” says Shuli Goodman, executive director of LF Energy. Alliander started developing its own black box in 2013 but took it open source in 2015 thanks to lobbying by Sander Jansen, a data architect there.

“What I saw was the big [grid software] vendors had their own roadmap, their own product managers, their own vision and it doesn't always align with what clients want,” Jansen recalls. Developing their own solution gave Alliander more options and prevented it from being stuck with any one provider’s service. Now that it is open source, it also allows third parties to develop their own uses for the platform.

So far, most of the outside interest has been in smart meters, Jansen says. Other projects focus on more traditional grid management concerns such as distribution automation and transmission. Potential future projects include interfacing with municipal charging stations for electric cars.

The electricity grid’s relationship to open source actually dates back to 1997 , if not before, when some North American utilities and research organizations used it to simulate local grid management scenarios. Academics also developed their own open source research tools , such as the 2005 open source grid tool called PSAT , developed by Federico Milano at University College in Dublin, Ireland.

But there wasn’t much collaboration between academia and utilities, Milano says: “The [electric utility] community is very closed and not willing to help at all except for some, few individuals. The problem is [the people who use] open source tools are PhD students… Then, when they are hired by some company, they are forced to use some commercial software tool and do not have time to spare to contribute to the community with their code.”

Today, most major transmission and system operators still use commercial software, often from companies such as Siemens and ABB, with custom modifications. Utilities must focus heavily on security, to ensure reliable electricity for hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

But changes in electricity supply may be favoring smarter grids and a more software-focused approach. As energy grids take on more intermittent sources of power, such as solar and wind, it can get harder for ripple control technology to send a reliable signal across the whole grid, Jansen says.

Other changes may also favor more openness, Milano says: “If power system ‘granularity’ is going to increase (e.g., grid-connected microgrids, smart building, aggregators, etc.), then there will be many small companies that will get into the power business from scratch and some of them might be attracted by the ‘open source software’ model.”

Open/Close is a series of stories by Lucas Laursen for IEEE Spectrum that explores how openness and technology interact. The open source movement emerged from software, but has spread in many directions since, to hardware-focused Fab Labs and even voting booths. Openness offers plenty of tempting benefits: oversight by the crowd, preventing duplication of effort, and the ability to empower vulnerable people. But it also results in innumerable software forks, doesn’t always attract a critical mass of users, and can threaten privacy. This series will address how the tensions between open and closed technology are playing out in the engineering world.

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