Transforming the grid from analog to digital |

Transforming the grid from analog to digital

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On Monday I was invited to participate in the Energy panel of the President's Council of Jobs and Competitiveness.  After introductions by NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson, North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, and US Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Chair of the Council (and Chairman and CEO of GE) Jeffrey Immelt got right to the point of the session: He and his team came to North Carolina to listen.  His job, and the job of the council, is to integrate ideas and insights from business leaders around the country into a realistic plan that can meaningfully reduce unemployment, strengthen our economy, and do so in a sustainable way.  Energy technologies, policies, and strategies are all important dimensions to this overall challenge, and the assembled leaders--who are users, distributors, and generators of energy--came ready to participate in the discussion.

The first to speak on behalf of our community was Jim Rogers, Chairman, President, and CEO of Duke Energy.  Picking up on comments made by Secretary Locke, who said that we needed 'an internet for power,' Rogers went one step further. He explained that our infrastructure is so old (electrical bus bars signed and installed by Thomas Edison are still installed in major distribution centers in New York City) that the transition to a new grid will be as fundamental as the change from analog to digital.  He also pointed out that in the coal energy generation business alone, obsolete plants in production today are generating tons of toxic pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, not to mention fine particulates, which have a devastating impact on health as well.

  Mr. Rogers told the panel that capital today is as cheap as it's ever been, and if all we did was put the extraordinary amounts of excess capital already in the private sector into modernizing existing coal-fired power plants to meet modern air pollution standards, we could create more than 4 million jobs. This could immediately reverse the worst results of decisions made 60 years ago when these plants went into production. That one step would drop unemployment from 9.1% to 6.5%, assuming we could find qualified workers.  (There are currently 2 million open jobs that are unfilled because we don't have the right people for those jobs--a topic covered in another panel, attended by Red Hat's DeLisa Alexander.)

A long-term and more strategic approach involves changing our energy distribution and consumption models.  In America, we send more than 100 million megawatts of light energy into our night skies every year, propelled by more than 38 million tons of CO2 emissions.  This double-whammy is wasting 10 billion dollars or more per year while literally blotting out the heavens.

Conservation opportunities abound. There are buildings being built in Charlotte, North Carolina that are 20% more efficient than conventional designs being built elsewhere. Cree, Inc., is shipping LED lighting products that are 100% more energy efficient than they were three years ago; they are also six to ten times more efficient than conventional lamps.  But these small examples tell only a part of the story.  If we want to really make a difference in energy efficiency, sustainability, and security, we need to transform our grid.  This is where open source comes in.

The initial change from analog to digital circuit-switching technology was a non-event, because it was the exclusive domain of its monopoly master.  One of the participants on the panel pointed out that AT&T did not activate its first fiber until after it settled its anti-trust case with the US Department of Justice.  Today, fiber to the home (FTTH) is a sign of well-functioning public and private sectors.  (I only wish it were more prevalent where I live and work!)

  For all the credit we love to give to certain individuals for helping to give birth to the Internet, the real hero of the story--the midwife of the greatest economic engine of the last 50 years--is open source software.  Open source made it possible to connect disparate and diverse problem-solvers and solution-seekers, and to share their innovations at light-speed.  Open source made possible not only the implementation, but also the evolution of highly complex standards that could be rapidly adopted, shared, and validated.  Open source and open standards made this analog-to-digital conversion one of the most successful transitions ever, and created the foundation of the new technology economy.

I pointed out that if we're thinking about building 'an internet for energy' (as I prefer to call it), we need to respect the wisdom of the actual Internet, and put open source, open standards, open collaboration, and open participation at the core of the new grid.  I also warned that we should learn from the mistakes of a failed analog-to-digital conversion, namely the content industry and the DMCA.

The DMCA promised that in exchange for dramatically reducing the rights of individuals to access, format, store, share, critique, reference, and even index content, the content companies promised that they would make far more content available to many more people in many more formats.  Congress believed that ten times more content with a tenth of the freedom was a fair trade, and passed the DMCA over the howls of the free culture, free society, free software, and civil liberties groups. 

Ten years later the failure of that law and its policies have become painfully clear, with major content owners fully at war with customers who want the freedom and flexibility that digital technologies afford.  Instead of delivering on the promises of innovation and access, the DMCA is used by big content as a bludgeon to stamp out innovation and limit access.  Falling revenues, profits, and the waning cultural relevance of the music industry are the canaries in their economic coal-mines.  And instead of listening to their customers and to the market, they hire an ever-louder chorus of lobbyists in a vain attempt to shout down reality.  We don't want to see--and simply cannot afford--an analog-to-digital conversion of our energy grid based on the principle that greater control equals greater good.  It's not true and it won't work.

Fortunately, there were many around the table on Monday who believe in the right way to think about this historic transformation, and who are building the tools to do it correctly.  Dan Gregory, Chariman of Green Energy Corp, spoke articulately and forcefully about his commitment to using open source to architect the next grid, specifically because the next grid requires an edge-to-core rather than a core-to-edge polarity. 

Think about it: Proprietary software is a core-to-edge system where software is developed exclusively inside one company and then distributed to many on the outside. Open source is developed by a community of people who can be anywhere in the world. The open source paradigm of transmitting ideas from the edge to the core creates software faster, better, and cheaper than any known alternative

The way to make energy more reliable, more secure, and more adaptable to our changing environment and changing circumstance is not through ever-more complex systems of central control and monopoly authority.  Rather, we need to democratize the grid, making it more accessible, more modular, and more inclusive.  If we don't, we will never create the level playing field for renewable energy that we so deparately need.  If we do, renewables [1] [2] will advance rapidly on their merits, helping to achieve the strategic goals of energy independence and energy security while dramatically increasing the range of job options for the American worker.

It was an honor to be invited to share these thoughts with such an influential group of business leaders, and it made me proud to see how much clout the open source model has beyond the mere domain of software. Now it is time to make some real progress: To secure our energy future while we improve the environment, strengthen the economy, and employ people by the millions in ways that benefit everybody. And we do this by not only lowering unemployment, but by actually making the world a better place for ourselves and for our children.

About the author

Michael Tiemann - Michael Tiemann is a true open source software pioneer. He made his first major open source contribution more than two decades ago by writing the GNU C++ compiler, the first native-code C++ compiler and debugger. His early work led to the creation of leading open source technologies and the first open source business model.