Shuli Goodman talks a lot about building the next generation of clean energy, but she doesn’t just mean erecting fields of solar panels and wind turbines. As the director of Linux Foundation Energy (LF Energy), launched by the nonprofit Linux Foundation in 2018, she’s interested in another kind of infrastructure that she says will be essential to moving the world’s grids away from fossil fuels and cutting carbon dioxide emissions: open-source software.
Today, much of our power system essentially runs on a hundred-year old model. Centralized power plants, often running on fossil fuels, produce a constant stream of energy, which is pushed out along a grid: first along long-distance, high voltage transmission wires, and then into lower voltage community energy systems. That centralized approach creates a lot of wasted electricity, because it’s difficult to match electricity supply being produced at power plants with demand in homes and businesses. It also means that power companies have to keep a lot of dirty, fossil-fuel powered generators on standby, starting them up when electricity demand is highest.
A new, cleaner system would run on renewable energy and use software to automatically choreograph energy flows from wind and solar plants—which produce electricity intermittently, when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing—along with grid-scale batteries, electric vehicles (EV) plugged into the grid, and other sources of stored energy in order to balance electrical supply and demand. Such a network, which would take advantage of modern computers and sensors, could work much more efficiently, and drastically lower carbon dioxide emissions.
But there’s a fundamental problem in efforts to build that kind of system: electrical utilities and power equipment manufacturers are all using their own software systems and protocols. That will make it difficult for different parts of that new power system—EV charging stations, solar farms, batteries, transformer stations—to talk to one another.
LF Energy is trying to create software and communication protocols that would solve that problem, allowing all the different pieces of a new electrical grid to, in essence, speak the same language, much in the same way that the architects of the early internet designed protocols that allowed computers to communicate easily. Such a system, says Goodman, will allow us to do more with fewer solar panels and wind turbines, and build an advanced grid much faster, speeding global progress toward decarbonizing electricity. “If you really want to be able to go fast,” says Goodman, “You have to take the time to make sure that you’ve got a foundation that’s under you.”
LF Energy is coordinating thousands of engineers around the world to build the pieces of that foundation. The software they’re building is open-source, meaning that anyone can use or modify it, saving utility systems from each having to write their own code. European utilities helped get the ball rolling on the project back in 2018—and big tech companies have joined more recently (Microsoft, for example, became a LF Energy member in September 2021). Those companies contribute some of the work on LF Energy’s software; other efforts come from volunteers.
Together, they’re working on projects like ShapeShifter, which began development last year and is meant to help grids route electrical flows through power lines in ways that not only take customer demand and physical constraints into account, but also will try to reduce input from polluting fossil fuel plants. Another project launched in 2019 called Grid Exchange Fabric allows a grid operator to communicate with connected devices, like lightbulbs and dishwashers, to reduce their power consumption during times of peak demand by, for instance, reducing a light bulb’s wattage.
TIME spoke with Goodman to talk about those initiatives, the broader goals of LF Energy, and the challenges in the way of making a better energy system. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
TIME: What would the software you’re building be able to do?
Goodman: Electrons require a physical network. They need a line; they need copper wire. You can’t send electrons through the air like telecommunications information. The role of software in transforming power systems is to use high velocity, high volume data to be able to describe that very physical system in enormous detail, so that it can be managed, like an internet network is managed. So we’re using very similar principles to those that are used for the internet.
What kinds of things can such a networked grid be able to do that we can’t do already?
One of the things about the way we’ve built our energy system is that it’s this always-on thing—there’s just this massive, [constant] flow of electrons through a system. So you flip the switch, the light comes on. But there are very few controls that actually allow us to use those electrons more at times of day when perhaps there’s a lot more electrons flowing through the system, because, say, there’s a lot of sun or a lot of wind. [Software] allows us what I will refer to as radical energy efficiency, where we’re maximizing every electron and continuing to provide the same results. And with that, we are going to create greater economic efficiency, and I think it’s going to be fantastic for society. We don’t realize how much we’re wasting.
Can you tell me about one of your projects?
I’m very passionate about a project we have called Everest, which is essentially an EV gateway [a communication system for EV charging infrastructure]. We are about to spend trillions of dollars globally to build entirely new infrastructure to support electric vehicles. If every single charging box interprets information protocols in its own way, we have increased exponentially our risks of creating stranded technology [in other words, infrastructure that will soon become obsolete]. It would be like trying to build the internet where Microsoft interpreted it one way, Google interpreted it another way, and Apple interpreted it in another way. You and I would not be having this video call. We are having this conversation because there’s a common software base layer that is the same, and everybody uses it.
Do you worry about what happens if we don’t roll out that kind of universal software?
We’re going to have to increasingly run, chew gum, and take care of the baby. We have to deal with geopolitical conflicts, deal with pandemics, deal with climate collapse. The main thing I worry about is that there’s going to be so many things happening, and it’s going to be largely terrifying to people. And so a lot of my role as a leader is to try and give the people I lead some calm and comfort, that we have to stay focused and just stick to our knitting. Like, ‘I don’t care what’s going on out there—we have to stay focused.’
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