Kate Mackenzie Steven Chu: Open source software can reduce need for coal plants

Could open source software save the planet? Steven Chu, the US energy secretary, says it can certainly help, by making it easier for all countries to access tools to design and build more energy-efficient buildings.

Chu has been the subject of high hopes for environmentalists and scientists since the Nobel prize winner was appointed energy secretary. Some of those cheering him on have been disappointed as his strident criticism of coal has given way to political reality.

In the report linked to above, he tells FT journalists Clive Cookson, Fiona Harvey and Carola Hoyos that “there will be no moratorium in India, China and other developing countries.”

Chu still believes coal, even with carbon capture and sequestration, is not an attractive energy source. But he is adamant that great efficiency, particularly in buildings, will significantly reduce the number of power plants built. To really take effect, he says, global co-operation on technology to improve efficiency is vital. And that co-operation, he says, could be best facilitated by open source software to avoid the wrangling over intellectual property that is sometimes a source of tension between developed and developing countries in climate change talks.

Sharing technology and expertise, he believes, is crucial:

[N]ow we will be developing relationships with developing countries that will actually put people together, share the gardener’s craft if you will on how to build more efficient buildings.

A lot of this could be in the form of: actually we want to take it away from the gardener’s craft or cooking expertise, and put it more into computer design tools that have embedded in those tools energy efficiency.

So when a structural engineer starts to lay out an HVAC [heating, ventilation and air control] system this computer design tool can actually instruct this person actually how to do it much more efficiently. How to design a much more efficient building.

[It] should be open source software, so companies can add to that and put whatever they want on it but then you get this body of programmes, computer aided design programmes, as a way of helping design much more efficient buildings.

Now if we develop this with China together so that this intellectual property is co-owned, co-developed, free to be used by each country, you get away from this internal discussion of ‘we’re not going to do anything until we get free IP’.

Chu also believes the US has a lot to gain from this approach, through involvement with China’s rapidly growing cities:

Now what’s in it for the United States? First, I’m not so sure we have an edge on this technology, secondly… the buildings in China will be enormous; the infrastructure of cities equivalent to at least one US population the next couple of decades… So that becomes a laboratory for actually testing a lot of these design concepts. So I think Europe also should be doing this. In fact in my opinion it should really be a deep connection; a connection where you’re there at the construction site, you’re there in the design, you’re actually sharing at that level and then you’re sharing in the experience that, once the building is built, how efficient is it?

Many of the buildings in the US that are certified for efficiency, he said, are assessed on design rather than their actual function when built.

Related stories:

Energy chief seeks efficient ways to cut coal (FT, 27/05/09)