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Q&A: How energy companies are responding to climate change (Includes interview)

During October 2019 hundreds of climate activists have flooded Paris as part of a planned series of protests around the world by the Extinction Rebellion movement. The campaigners want the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, halt biodiversity loss and be led by new “citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice.

How are energy companies responding to the demands? Dr. Shuli Goodman, the Executive Director of LF Energy, a non-profit organization bringing the energy industry together in the climate change fight through open-source tech, gives consideration as to how energy companies are being called to respond to these massive demonstrations.

She tells Digital Journal about her predictions for how many of energy companies and occupied countries will respond to these latest calls for actions.

Digital Journal: How serious are the environmental issues facing our planet?

Shuli Goodman: To be frank, very. We’ve reached the limits of being able to ignore the threats to our society. Illya Prigogine, a Chemist who won the Pulitzer in Physics, very late in his life was asked if he believed in a unified theory of the universe. His answer was sage. He said he didn’t know if there was a unified theory of everything, but he did believe that the laws of the universe can not contradict each other. It has taken us 13 billion years to get to where we are today. Human history has only existed for 10,000 years. Yet, in the last 100, 125 years, because we have designed systems that contradict natural laws, we are accelerating the extinction of species at a rate 1,000 times faster than the time before humans. And, we have created externalities that are taking the “Goldilocks” conditions of our natural environment and creating an unpredictable and inhospitable climate.

Humans’ job, especially in the next 20-50 years, is to design systems that are increasingly aligned with the natural laws of the universe – physics, biology, chemistry, and yes, economics.

DJ: How successful do you think the climate change protests will be?

Goodman: While I don’t think we’ll see immediate changes based on protest, I do believe that the memes of awareness that are rapidly spreading, especially amongst the millenials and younger, will sound the alarm driving outrage. Going forward, especially in an election year in the US, the issues will be much more difficult to ignore.

The public is seeking to find out how to take personal responsibility for the cataclysmic direction we’re going in. Whether the protests are Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Earth, they are incredibly important in terms of having the public understand the severity of our situation.

What’s especially impactful about the Extinction Rebellion protests is the theatrics of it, for example being dressed in all red. In a social world where social media is essential, creating a dramatic message through visuals becomes easily shareable and communicated. And as that message continues to be disseminated among channels, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop. Instead, we must keep going until it’s clear we have wind in our sails and momentum behind our efforts.

I would say though, that to engage more people, the protests will need to feel less threatening than the climate threat. Said another way, if people come to view the protests as fundamentally scary, the protests could have unintended consequences that keep people on the sidelines instead of joining.

DJ: How is the energy industry responding?

Goodman: The energy industry’s response is dependent on geography. What is happening in the US is different than what is happening in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America. Energy and electricity are hyper-local issues and the energy transition is driving a centralized model towards generate local and consume local energy.

The alignment of climate goals needs clear policy to drive market transformation from a utility perspective. In the US we have decoupled national and federal policy due to the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Europe is more coordinated. Currently, 90-94% of the decarbonization is related to the transition to renewable energy and the electrification of transport. Because of this, the pressure on the grid to be able to deliver a distributed energy future is quite intense.

We are not innovating quickly enough, nor is there a framework for ensuring that people are trained in power systems and digitization, therefore we can’t understand the critical issues. As an example, distributed energy requires distributed computing. Recent surveys suggest that 85% of energy executives fear for the security of cloud computing. Yet, our entire global computing framework whether telecommunications, automobiles, business, air traffic, etc is all based on cloud computing, the foundations of which are all open source. Cloud computing has not shown itself to be more “insecure” than proprietary software. It’s actually to the contrary, and this sort of gap in understanding is exactly what is slowing the transition. Because of this, there is a tremendous need for upskilling among the younger generations to consider this as a legitimate career path.

So there is a talent problem but also a sharing problem. In the US there is a common notion from monopoly utilities that they ‘need to go it alone.’ Part of what LF Energy is trying to surface awareness that “going it alone” is impossible; all solutions associated with climate change, fundamentally have to be collective. We can’t transform the energy sector with the same brain we used to create the energy sector —transformation is key.

DJ: How can the energy industry be brought together to reduce emissions?

Goodman: When you look at energy, it’s not just utilities. It’s utilities, their vendors and the regulators. The problem is that the regulators don’t completely understand the digital implications, utilities are scared of digitization and the abstraction of complexity, and vendors are still selling proprietary black boxes. So, even though we are all speaking to digitization and flexibility, there is more fear and ignorance than educated understanding. There is a great need for education.

Every industry that has gone through digital transformation goes from software eating hardware, to open source eating software. We need open source to eat both software and hardware as a way to fundamentally shift the economics at scale if we want to be as successful as possible.

Renewable energy costs keep going down but other costs must be factored in. What open source allows is the use of commodity hardware and open source software to build on top of that in a way that can facilitate huge transformation and allow us to climb the value chain. Open source is not about destroying capital but about reallocating investment and value streams to higher-levels.

It is impossible to literally network electrons, but we can network the metadata about an electron. The implications are that to facilitate flexibility we will need to create a utility environment capable of managing torrents of data. Having capacity to manage data will be key to the inevitable transformation of the power systems and transportation sectors.

DJ: What are the aims of LF Energy?

Goodman: These fall into four areas:

Software: LF Energy is looking for 100 percent decarbonization by 2050 (or sooner!) and building the commodity software layer to fundamentally transform the grid. The grid is becoming increasingly complex, so that no individual human being can actually “run” it. There is a need for open-source to lay the foundation to accelerate quickly and make use of technologies like AI, machine learning, automation, virtualization, while using modern software development techniques such as devops and CI/CD.

Convening and educating: Being able to create an environment where power system operators can work together to build the grid of the future is a key aim. That takes getting into the same room and upskilling the workforce. The Linux Foundation trains close to a million developers a year. Our intention is to leverage the Linux Foundations training platform to help transform the energy sector with regards to digitization.

Governance: Collaborating in the open is one of the most powerful tools we have for accelerating the energy transition. There are projects that need to happen, which require cooperation among multiple entities. So whether a vendor, utility or an oil/gas company – there needs to be a neutral environment for all to assemble and leverage development.

Insuring the clear providence and permissive reuse of software is critical to shared investments. We want to both protect collective investments and enable enlightened self-interest. There is a limit to monolithic software or software development. We are seeking to create an environment where people can work to solve their own problems – in community.

Narrative: LF Energy is facilitating the stories of France, Denmark, Estonia, Portugal, the Netherlands and others, but a lot of what LF Energy does is framing and creating a story and getting that story out into people’s awareness. By curating these stories, we are helping others realize that LF Energy is here, they can join, and this is a good place to be.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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