Analysis
Collaborative and open energy? Yes we can!
On 19 September 2012 by Christopher Santerre and Geoffroy Levy

How about revolutionizing energy production for housing towards open and collaborative energy? For this dream to come true, future societies must find innovative and scaleable concepts that enable local and adaptable energy production.  This is what the open source energy project is all about.

As usual, he checks the control module. It is fully charged and the lights are green. He will sleep well tonight because he knows that tomorrow morning there will be enough power to make coffee and toast as well as throw a big party in the evening. The usual West wind and the large amount of rain that fell last night greatly helped fill the energy reserve.

We are not in a science fiction novel but are looking at what could become our daily routine in the near future. The character in our story was misled by an initially good solution which he would have to pay for over decades with no guarantee of ever being repaid.

This is why he has the courage to become part of a movement that will help future generations while saving money: the open and collaborative energy generation.

Open and collaborative energy, what is it?

The idea is simple. Today, most available solutions in the renewable energy market are based on the model of the high tech locked products such as the ones developed by Apple. Solar, wind, and, to a lesser extent, hydraulics are only accessible through complex and totally opaque systems in which the user is not able to intervene.

The open and collaborative energy movement does not intend to replace the numerous available solutions to generating renewable energy, but aims to fill a void.

It is a low tech alternative that allows users themselves to become actors. Since the advent of electricity in homes, the trend has increasingly moved towards a centralization of production. It has allowed companies to shift from having generators in villages to using regional facilities while increasing the power of each station. At the same time the recipients of this energy have lost their means of control and action. Since we are fully dependent on access to energy, we must ask ourselves, which means to intervene still remain?

Relocating production

Nourished by the ideas developed by Jeremy Rifkin in “The Third Industrial Revolution“, the concept of open and collaborative energy tries to relocate the production of resources closer to the user from a geo-economic perspective. Ultimately the goal is to move toward self-production in connection with a community that allows the evolution of technology while providing assistance to its users.

Since individual needs and the necessary buildings vary from place to place, there are a multitude of possible answers for the development of renewable energies. As we enter the era of complementarities (sources, uses, functions …) centralized responses will not be as effective as adapted ones. What could be more adapted and affordable than a case by case solution installed and maintained by users themselves?

Open and collaborative energy leaves no room for the model of the vacuum cleaner salesman.

Users are at the heart of the system. They merit what Victor Papanek calls the “Manifesto of consumer rights”, which is a set of rules that designers should respect when creating products:

1 – The right to safety; to be protected against dangerous or poorly designed products

2 – The right to information; not to be manipulated by false information or a lack of information.

3 – The right to basic services, fair prices and choices; if monopolies exist, a minimum guaranteed quality at reasonable prices

4 – The right to representation; to be consulted and to participate in decisions that affect consumers

5 – The right to be heard through recognized channels and have the right to a prompt and fair compensation

6 – The right to consumer education from the perspective of the users themselves

7 – The right to a safe and healthy environment in which the object has no negative impact.

The development of a project must take place through a collaborative work process during which the necessary open source technologies, knowledge and skills are transferred to users to empower them. Technologies are not implemented in a fixed system but remain open so that everyone can make a contribution and improve according to the principles of open source. The effectiveness of this well established approach for computing was proven with the development of linux.

open source energy

Why “open source” ?

The open approach may seem to be paradox in our Western capitalist societies, in which everything tends to be closed. However collaborative work is an alternative to this model as it creates wealth not from the number of items sold, but from the way the relationships between users, manufacturers and objects are constructed. In regard to wealth inequalities, the open source approach helps level disparities by improving access to technologies through the contribution of all. Everyone can work to meet the needs of society and help improve the whole.

Thanks to the free flow of ideas, single teams do not focus on isolated problems. Instead, they are solved by collective intelligence (similar to the crowdsourcing habit of open-source software communities as Linux or the free encyclopedia Wikipedia), which generates the common good. Open source models are every effective at providing the necessary resources in contexts that require complex and modular responses (in the open source hardware field, the recent Open Source Ecology and Wikispeed projects apply this in a very efficient way. It is interesting how these production principles generate new ways of working together).

Open and collaborative energy is also a great way to raise public awareness for necessary societal changes by making the efforts of those participating visible while proving that one can achieve something without large amounts of money. The more visible the equipment for self-sufficient energy production becomes, the easier it will be to demonstrate its usefulness.

The open source energy project

The idea behind the Open Source Energy (OSE) project is to move energy production back to the individual level by transforming our everyday environment into a multitude of potential and complementary energy sources.

The OSE approach is based on establishing a set of interchangeable modules that allows a perfect adaptation of the technology to the location and users’ basic needs. A highly transparent construction combined with relevant data about the technology makes the system easy to repair and to adapt to different devices.

After its launch in the heart of ENSCI-Les Ateliers (French Design School in Paris), the project made its way through many alternative groups and has profited from their knowledge and experience.

A first production module with a simple and functional design has already been created: the EnerCan. This generator module —the first of its kind— is dedicated to transforming mechanical energy created by humans (muscles) or the environment (wind, water, etc.) into viable and adaptable electrical energy. Having been present at open-source and DIY community events, the team is trying to spread this idea and look for people motivated to promote this energy transition.

ose energy project

EnerCan module

A technological and sociological scouting process has also been implemented to identify what paths could be explored. Links to the past are very important in this project. Thanks to the scouting process, the product design has been fed by using forgotten ideas and solutions. The needs of our society are always changing, but still they sometimes overlap with those of previous generations.

Collecting and analyzing the results of past projects can be crucial to updating new technologies and adapting them to current issues, but can also lead to the emergence of innovative tools and interesting fusions that are created from a mixture of solutions from the past and today.

The tools developed in the OSE project are designed to be easy to replicate as this will promote their proliferation. They were also designed to be able to benefit from digital production devices such as 3D printers (RepRap), digital cutting tools or free programmable modules (Arduino).

The goal now is to create and maintain connections to academic partners such as engineering schools and associative structures such as hackerspaces and fablabs. This will allow the diffusion of the first module of EnerCan and hopefully lead to the birth of many innovative projects oriented toward the design of production modules (hydraulic, stirling engine …).

You can read more about the project here and here (in French).

Christopher Santerre Post-industrial designer Profile →
Geoffroy Levy Innovation catalyst and techno scout. Profile →

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