More than three quarters (76%) of energy stakeholders have a clear strategic plan for digitalization and have already begun implementing it, according to an LF Energy survey of 441 energy industry stakeholders across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific.
The survey found the majority (51%) of respondents see information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) on the way to convergence in their organizations, and there is a shift towards using open source software (OSS).
Nearly two-thirds (64%) of energy stakeholders said they use more OSS than closed source, however more than four in 10 (43%) said they believe energy industry consensus is still key to increasing OSS adoption.
Dr. Antonello Monti, professor at RWTH Aachen University and Chair of the LF Energy Technical Advisory Council, says the question of building consensus around adoption of open source software is a huge challenge for the energy sector.
“The industry has traditionally been very conservative and closed due to its critical nature,” he explains. “Utilizing established, long proven technologies has been the norm unlike other industries that may be more open to innovation.”
Since open source was not widely used historically, there is a need to educate stakeholders on what open source is, how it can be used properly and securely, and why it is the most efficient and effective way to complete digitalization in the sector.
This means having more conversations with these stakeholders, providing educational materials and engaging in thought leadership through speaking engagements and written resources. It also means working with organizations they already trust, such as standards bodies to release open standards and specifications that they can not only adopt but contribute their expertise to.
“Finally, it is necessary to highlight where open source is currently being successfully deployed by many organizations such as electrical utilities around the world to provide real world proof points they can emulate,” he says.
Monti adds the biggest surprise from the report is how far along the convergence of IT and OT is in terms of digital transformation.
“OT investments are typically for decades and digitalizing these assets is an incredibly difficult process, but one that is essential to creating energy grids that are flexible enough to successfully manage onboarding of large amounts of distributed energy resources like solar and wind,” he explains.
He adds compatibility and interoperability between IT and different OT assets is highly complex, so the fact that this transition is occurring so rapidly is positive to see. Monti says the energy sector is approaching digitalization across the board because there is no other choice to speed decarbonization activities.
“This means all parts of power systems from generation to transmission to distribution to end use,” he says.
The survey also found cost reduction and transition speed-up are the main benefits of OSS in the energy sector and can help reduce grid complexity by enabling the integration and management of distributed energy resources (DERs) and easing application development.
“A key way open source reduces complexity in energy systems is through interoperability and flexibility,” Monti explains. “The grid is getting more complex every single day as more power generation sources as well as end use points are added.”
He says this transition will not slow anytime soon, so virtualizing as much of the energy system as possible is essential to not exactly reducing complexity but making it manageable.
“AI and automation are key, and open source is the fastest way to create secure, innovative, highly effective tools to manage these systems,” he says.
Lucian Balea, deputy director of R&D and open source director at Réseau de Transport d’Electricité (RTE), says the shift to decarbonized economies and societies implies an in-depth transformation of our energy systems.
“Digital innovation will be essential to achieve transformation swiftly and efficiently. The modularity, scalability and cross-industry interoperability of digital solutions will be essential features,” he says.
An example is the deployment of automation systems across the grid that monitor the live power flows and trigger load flexibility services from grid users to manage occasional overloads.
“The deployment of such digital solutions enables significant grid reinforcement savings,” he says.
Balea notes one of the biggest challenges is that IT professionals often do not think of the energy sector as particularly innovative in the IT space, so they are not drawn to work in the industry.
“We need to further communicate the innovation that is happening, and also highlighting the positive impact contributions to the energy sector will have for the planet,” he says.
He points out many IT professionals are looking for work that is meaningful and makes a difference and argues the energy sector is one of the best industries for them to make that kind of impact.
“The fact is grids are going to get more complex as we onboard more distributed energy resources and we further electrify new areas such as mobility or heating,” he adds.
From Balea’s perspective, the only way to manage this complexity is digitalization, and his belief is the best way to do that is through open source.
“Open source software and standards can ensure interoperability which is key to managing this complexity,” he notes. “It is much more difficult to ensure interoperability when utilizing only proprietary, black box systems.”