Covid-19 lessons for the power grid

Interviews |
By Nick Flaherty

The Covid-19 pandemic has lessons for the world’s power grid technology, says Dr. Shuli Goodman, executive director at LF Energy, part of the Linux Foundation

“From where I sit, the pandemic is a dress rehearsal for a much more catastrophic set of circumstances and we are in a position of recognising that, by and large, pandemics do not recognise national borders and hijack economies,” said Goodman. “In that way I think that climate collapse and the issues of the power grid are very similar. We are powering electricity that knows no boundaries but if we do not solve for the climate challenges globally it will come to naught so it requires a degree of cooperation from the human race.

LF Energy is a non-profit open-source coalition to address climate change as part of the Linux Foundation. There are currently eight projects covering various parts of the power grid, from smart meter standards, operator software and data management, 

“This is what brought me to the Linux Foundation – they took something that was a hack of a Unix operating system 30 years ago and made it the operating system of the planet. 70 percent of our carbon comes from mobility and the grid, and I recognised that the governance model of the Linux operating system is no lightweight and elegant that we could use it for power systems.

“There are 250 other projects at the LF and some of these are looking at big cycles to identify opportunities. You have LF Networking for telecoms and datacoms with 5G going open source, because they recognised they cannot do it alone,” she said, “The pandemic has shown we cannot solve the problem on our own, like climate change. The future is dependent on us learning how to cooperate and work together,” she said.

The digitalisation of the power grid is a key trend, bringing advantages in digital twins, predictive maintenance and more complex asset management. But companies are doing their own thing rather than collaborating.

“It’s very interesting how much of every business investment in the digitalisation of energy is re-creating the non-differentiating layers of software,” said Goodman. “I would propose that most people are competing on a very small layer, recreating the lower layers and investing capital in that. So the most efficient thing to do is to commodify the lower layers of the stack to accelerate innovation at the higher layers.

“That’s what’s happening, The inefficiency means we basically go pretty slow. If we do not commodify the lower layers of the stack it will cause a lot of pain. But that complexity can be abstracted with technology. The software that we need does not yet exist but the components largely do exist,” she said. “So we need an agreed model of what the gird of the future looks like and start building reference architectures. Once we have that, you can add features like predictive maintenance and asset monitoring.

“Then you can add highly sophisticated algorithms to monitor the equipment using things that already exist in open source so its really putting the blocks on the table, what parts don’t exist and what parts need to change.”

“When I look at cloud infrastructure there are very particular things that we need,” she said. “Security is a real concern and the ability to take a country down or a block of countries with integrated grids is increasingly a reality.”

“Right now there is no common certification of software and I’d like to see that happen. We are in a process of risk analysis and threat assessments of all of our software and starting teaching developers to move to the Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII) so our software is aligned with other standards. We’ve seen with Covid-19 that it’s our ability to move people, ideas, products and services that is essential but it has also demonstrated that a part of that is problematic.

“What I am focused on is capacity building. The Confidence Maturity Model (CMM) has been used in software development for decades and that shows the ability to achieve a complex vision is directly proportional to the capacity of the organisation. Here we have a really complex vision and we need to build the foundation for that vision.”

“My second priority is membership and then the software,” she said.

Membership is a key issue as the large equipment and power grid system developers are currently missing from the list. “GE’s membership is just coming through and I am encouraging them to participate whether or not they are members. So I say to Sunrun, Siemens, Schneider Electric, let’s do something and trust that it will grow. When one is in uncertainty the thing that really kills you is doubt. Ultimately trust is the thing that will lead you through.”

LF Energy is already working with GE Renewable Energy, Schneider Electric, RET and ALliander on the Digital Substation Automation Systems (DSAS) initiative to enhance the modularity, interoperability and scalability of the power grid to accelerate the global effort toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

The first project under DSAS, is CoMPAS, or Configuration Modules for Power industry Automation Systems. This aims to deploy modern, open-source technology, digital substations that can more efficiently adjust to changes in power supply and demand through expanded dynamic protection settings, better data management capabilities and increased adaptive automation functions.

A more efficient power grid will increasingly integrate more solutions on the edge of the power grid, such as decentralized physical infrastructure assets, network or control, applications and analytics. Transforming our power grid represents one of the great opportunities for mitigating the climate crisis.

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