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Could Open Source Make Green Tech Economical?

April 01, 2013 By Salman Mitha, Fellow

Even with snow piles still in Minnesotan’s yards and fields, there’s concern over a continued drought this spring and summer. Last summer brought the third hottest on record in the U.S.; the year before was the second hottest. Add in major Duluth flooding, sinking home foundations due to Minnesota’s extreme weather, Super Storm Sandy, huge wildfires, and unusual tornadoes across the nation. It should reinforce global climate change as a real threat to life, property, and the economy.

Rising climate change concerns should also be driving the green economic boom. They are not. Last year, Minnesotans saw political interests trying to roll back nation leading renewable energy standards that are helping grow a local green economy. Fortunately this year, advocates are working with the progressive legislative majority to enhance those standards.

Despite some advances here and nationally, political gridlock and lack of public consensus share some of the blame for a green economy that’s not fulfilling its potential.

Surprisingly though, green technology itself shoulders part of the blame. Many green products are just too expensive. In these difficult economic times it important to develop cost effective and economical green technologies. For an example of how to develop successful products that drive economic growth, green tech advocates can actually look to the computer industry.

Let’s examine the role open source technology can play.

Open source software is based on the fact that people will donate their labor and expertise to the community for a common cause. Apple has its roots in the Homebrew Computer Club where technology hobbyists would get together to exchange ideas.

These early technology hobbyists developed a missionary zeal to provide quality software to everyone, creating the original open source software community. It is called open source software because the source code, the inner workings of the software, is open and available for anyone to see. The early hobbyists would write software and distribute it for free and in such a way that others could modify and add to the software. These projects were community efforts for the general good.

Over the years the open source movement has produced a range of free software products, making it now possible to set up a home computer entirely with free software programs.

As the industry grew, the open source movement developed a distinctly commercial track. Corporations initiated and supported larger projects. A good example is a software program called Apache, which powers the majority of the world’s websites. It is developed and controlled by a non-profit foundation and free to the public. Corporations either provide financial backing or encourage their employees to contribute to the development on company time. Large companies support these projects even though they don’t receive an immediate bottom line benefit because the projects create an industry-wide standardized knowledge infrastructure that helps everyone.

As for green technology, climate change concerns have been driving public and private R&D. Progress of new ideas and technology development has been very good. But mass commercialization progresses much slower. Most green products are often expensive or targeted towards niche markets. An open source green initiative would produce public domain intellectual property that could be used as social good as well as investment multiplier for the industry.

Like software, green technology attracts technophiles interested in the technology itself. But green technology has one huge advantage over software. Environmental concerns have created a strong public interest in green technology advancements from technical and non-technical communities.

The electric race car provides a good example. In the mid-nineties, John Wayland of Oregon—motivated to move the world away from oil—decided to build an electric car. He bought a battered Datsun, gutted the innards, and installed an electric drive train. His passion is fast cars so he put in a very powerful electric motor, painted the body white, and christened it the White Zombie. Soon the White Zombie was defeating Maseratis and other muscle cars in quarter mile drag races. All this was done without corporate or federally funded R&D or formal training.

The White Zombie’s underlying technology, electric cars, is over a hundred years old. Despite that success, it did not appear to have an impact on the green industry. Even as late as 2007 when a group of UAW workers wanted to develop electric version of the Ford Ranger they were unable to leverage Wayland’s work. The UAW electric Ford Ranger project unfortunately did not succeed. It might seem surprising that a group of automotive workers could not produce a retrofitted electric truck when a self-taught Wayland could retrofit an old car. It is even more surprising given the fact that Ford had manufactured battery powered electric Ranger trucks from 1998 – 2002.

However, it’s not all that surprising. In fact, it’s a good example of the challenge developing green technology for the wider market presents. Green technology development requires a much broader suite of skills than those required for computer technology. This complex nature of green technology is one of reasons why an open source green movement has not already arisen. To be successful the open source green movement will need to form institutions to provide the structure needed for technology development.

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  • AA says:

    April 18, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    There’s no “green economic boom” in the offing. A little dispassionate realism wouldn’t hurt. We will have to resort to more alternative sources of energy in the years to come (peak oil is already upon us) but these alternative sources will not make up for the fossil fuel deficit; indeed often they cannot substitute for fossil fuel at all. We are looking at declining rates of consumption—collectively and individually. I find myself agreeing with the likes of John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, and Jim Kunstler.