Open modeling/environmental NGO bridge

ngo-bridge

#1

Release 03
02 February 2019

 

This thread floats the idea of a bridge between the open energy modeling community and energy and climate NGOs. The discussion here looks at Europe but the themes presented should be applicable anywhere.

To date, there has been next to no contact between these two camps. But I believe that should change to mutual advantage. The open energy modelers are now sufficiently advanced and organized to engage in substantial outreach. And the NGOs, as I will argue, should begin to involve, trust, and work more closely with their supporters.

The tools and practices for doing so no longer constitute barriers. Indeed, many of the methods on offer came from collaborative open source software (abbreviated here FOSS) development.

It is worthwhile stressing at the outset that public and open are different concepts. Code, data, and documents can all be made public without being open. The latter requires that suitable open licenses be added that permit downstream users to use, modify, and share the material. In short, the freedom to reuse.

Context

To the best of my knowledge, established energy and climate NGOs have, for their policy analysis, relied solely upon:

  • closed source models
  • non‑open data
  • copyrighted reports

These NGOs often commission external consultants to undertake complex analysis, although simpler tasks are sometimes conducted in‑house using spreadsheets. These models are not made public and remain, in all practical terms, impenetrable.

Datasets, when published, which is a rarity, normally implicitly remain under full copyright and also European database protection (for instance Moore et al 2018). Reports are also not published under usable open access provisions either (refer to the Berlin Declaration 2003) (for instance Matthes et al 2018).

The one exception to the preceding comments is the Western Australian NGO Sustainable Energy Now (SEN) and their SIREN model (Rose 2016, Sustainable Energy Now 2017). It is also worth noting that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) runs a fork of the US government NEMS model which is public domain only within the United States and hence not technically open source (refer to the 2007 Open Source Definition).

Modern environmental NGOs date back about four or five decades (McNeill 2001), while FOSS development began in earnest about three decades ago. These two phenomena have remained completely separate in their parallel worlds The environmental NGOs pushed political transparency and engagement but most did little to involve or trust their memberships.

In contrast, the FOSS projects stressed openness at every turn — legal, technical, and social — and built an ethos of contribution, merit, and consensus and more recently inclusion, civil conduct and conflict resolution. A central theme throughout this evolution was the lack of a need to seek permission and hence also the freedom to fork a project and head elsewhere.

Similar conventions were later developed for authoring online encyclopedias and collecting citizen‑generated data (Lämmerhirt et al 2018). Wikipedia, for example, encourages participation by stressing “be bold”.

Outreach

In late‑November 2018, I began contacting NGOs in Europe — off my own bat using the no need to seek permission doctrine just described — to float the idea of a bridge meeting in Berlin in early to mid‑2019 to discuss opportunities for collaboration.

I won’t list the individual organizations here but I can say that several attempts were required to make useful contact with the incumbent NGOs.

A newly formed environmental group however, Extinction Rebellion (XR), launched on 31 October 2018 in the United Kingdom (Green and Scott Cato 2018) and which, four weeks later, had established nascent branches throughout Germany, France, and elsewhere, was much more receptive. I duly made contact via their generic email address in early‑December and received an enthusiastic response (the only one in fact). XR are diametrically opposite to an incumbent environmental NGO in almost every regard and indeed exhibit many characteristics of a FOSS project. So it is no surprise to me that XR saw opportunities where established environmental NGOs could not.

A Danish research project had also earlier created a website to encourage third parties to submit future energy system scenarios. But, despite prompting, no environmental NGOs engaged.

Satellite communities

There are various ways that established NGOs could interact with the open energy modeling community. These might include:

  • directly commissioned research (I am completely unaligned here)

  • associate with or even endorse modeling projects and prompt analytical directions (rather than specifying scenarios in detail)

  • develop online satellite communities for formulating scenarios and undertaking analysis and interpretation

I personally favor the third option — online satellite communities — having seen what FOSS development can accomplish. These satellite communities would not design the models, write the core code, or collect and curate primary data — the open energy modeling community is instead actively engaged in those tasks. Rather the satellite communities would formulate research questions, select modeling projects, develop scenarios, populate and run the models, and collate and analyze the results. A tight integration between the model developers, the data portals, the satellite communities, and the host NGOs would no doubt result.

These satellite communities are tentatively forming in other modeling domains. For instance, Extinction Rebellion, barely ten weeks old, has begun discussing building its own sustainability modeling capacity (XR‑DE community). Other domains, such as agriculture and economics, could also follow a similar route (although I am not aware of any activity aside from data assembly).

It is worth noting that the OSeMOSYS project is undertaking something similar, but with a focus on government agencies in developing countries (that’s the only project I am going to mention here). Their processes are also more formal than I envisage initially and their efforts are supported by multilateral institutions.

Stepping back, I believe it time for the incumbent NGOs to learn from and embrace FOSS development methods for their core policy analysis. The current practice of commissioning closed model analysis is a poor fit with their calls for public transparency and engagement. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that single institution closed source energy models will exist for much longer — having been out competed by their open source compatriots.

Possible ways forward

After discussions with the organizers of the Aarhus workshop (22–24 May 2019 forthcoming), we agreed to hold a plenary session to discuss opportunities should NGO representatives wish to attend.

Otherwise the idea of a one‑day bridge meeting in Berlin remains on the table. People can contact me directly if they wish although I am keen to broaden out the organization.

And the dialog can continue below of course. If you provide corrections or observations, I’ll update this posting too. R.

References

Berlin Declaration (22 October 2003). Berlin Declaration on open access to knowledge in the sciences and humanities. Munich, Germany: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, München.

Green, Alison and Molly Scott Cato et al (26 October 2018). “Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible: we must take action — Letters”. The Guardian. London, United Kingdom. ISSN 0261-3077.

Lämmerhirt, Danny, Jonathan Gray, Tommaso Venturini, and Axel Meunier (December 2018). Advancing sustainability together? citizen-generated data and the Sustainable Development Goals. Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Open Knowledge International, Public Data Lab.

Matthes, Felix Chr, Franziska Flachsbarth, Charlotte Loreck, Hauke Hermann, Hanno Falkenberg, and Vanessa Cook (October 2018). Zukunft Stromsystem II: Regionalisierung der erneuerbaren Stromerzeugung : Vom Ziel her denken — Version 1.1 [Future electricity system II: regionalization of renewable electricity generation: thinking on the goal — Version 1.1] (in German). Berlin, Germany: WWF Deutschland. ISBN 978-3-946211-22-8.

McNeill, JR (17 April 2001). Something new under the sun: an environmental history of the twentieth-century world. New York, USA: WW Norton and Company. ISBN 978-0-393-32183-8.

Molitch-Hou, Michael (19 October 2018). “Climate activists occupy Greenpeace UK headquarters — wait, that can’t be right”. Common Dreams.

Moore, Charles, Phil MacDonald, and Dave Jones (10 April 2018). Coal to clean: how the UK phased out coal without a dash for gas. United Kingdom: WWF and Sandbag.

OSI. Open Source Definition — Last modified 2007-03-22. Open Source Initiative (OSI). Palo Alto, California, USA.

Rose, Ben (April 2016). Clean electricity Western Australia 2030: modelling renewable energy scenarios for the South West Integrated System. West Perth, WA, Australia: Sustainable Energy Now.

Sustainable Energy Now (2017). Modelling overview: the SIREN toolkit and more. Perth, Australia: Sustainable Energy Now (SEN).

XR‑DE community (ongoing). Use of IPCC IAM models and similar. Extinction Rebellion Deutschland. Registration required but not approval.


North America openmod workshop series
Do-a-thon on COST grant for openmod activities
#2

I really like your push forward in this direction, thank you Robbie!

There was the Bits & Bäume Conference in Berlin last November 2018,
which was aiming to crossover sustainability and digitalisation.
I believe some openmodders where present; maybe there were more ideas exchanged which could be added?

I also think that is the approach to aim for. Not only would this increase transparency, but allowing for involvement (thinking in the direction of Citizen Science here) could

  1. increase the acceptance and understanding in the public of scenarios and results
  2. increase the relevance of research questions and scenarios from the point of view of also single ‘critical’ individuals

As Tom brought up the openmod’s 5th birthday and a extra special event in Autumn 2019 and in conjunction outreach of the openmod community to other continents: NGOs could be valuable if we want to increase our outreach/branching to especially African/South Asian/South American countries. There could be some strong synergies if we couple the NGO outreach with the special event and the nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference idea.


#3

Hi,

thanks Robbie for this really interesting thread.

I also agree that having an interaction with NGOs would be important for all the reasons you explained, and probably shaping the interaction in the form of satellite communities as the ones you described (i.e. ones that may help building an “extended peer community” [Ravetz, 1999] of people involved in the definition and enrichment of scenarios) could be the best option.

Even more than an opportunity, I think that a continuous and solid discussion with these NGOs is something that the openmod would need to timely and carefully manage, to ensure that the thing keeps going in the direction of increasing the quality of our analyses for the benefit of the whole community of people fighting for decarbonisation, and not the opposite. In fact, it’s worth underlining that (if not timely discussed) the thing might go also in another direction, as it may seem, for instance, for the experiment you mentioned of XR-DE (which, by the way, I am myself following with interest) of using IAMs for doing their own analyses: in short, I feel that, if every random NGOs starts running scenarios without taking care of building an extended peer community with the modellers themselves, there’s a good probability that at some point there will be a bunch of low-quality scenarios out in the web, which might be taken as a pretext to discredit the quality of open models altogether.

So, I do think that it’s really a great thing if NGOs (especially new ones, as XR) start getting interested and involved in open-source modelling, and I do think this could benefit a lot to both of us, yet only if the relationship between the modellers and the NGOs is timely and properly established on the basis of continuous discussion and reciprocal involvement, just as you suggest. So, let’s keep this discussion going.

Best,

Francesco

References
Ravetz, I.R., 1999.What is post-normal science. Futures-the Journal of Forecasting Planning and Policy, 31(7), pp.647-654.


#4

One comment and a short update. I am sticking with my policy of not naming names (beyond Extinction Rebellion) for now.

Regarding low quality scenarios. Running the scenarios adds a certain rigor to the process. For instance, local and regional energy autarky has quite a following in green circles in Germany and doubtless elsewhere. As most here will know, renewable energy has to be shifted in time (storage) or space (transmission) to cover some given demand trajectory for energy services (exhibiting various degrees of flexibility and importance). So those favoring flat or reduced transmission capacity will, speculatively, find such systems exhibit low aggregate efficiency (round trip storage being more lossy than transmission) and/or high curtailment (harvesting technologies being cheaper than storage technologies), both with significant implications for affordability and ecological cost. It matters not whether my example is correct — the point is that the process of modeling embeds its own exigencies. And if some mavericks manage to locate unorthodox high performing solutions, well that’s great! Weise et al (2014) expands on this view of open modeling as a necessary condition for public participation.

The NGO reactions thus far have been interesting. I would say most have little to no idea as to:

  • the potential of open development and how the associated communities might function (beyond Wikipedia)

  • the potential contribution of (open or closed) energy modeling to decarbonized futures (beyond Microsoft Excel)

One established NGO commented that they like their reports to create a “splash”, meaning they can promote their conclusions on mainstream and social media and gain publicity. I’m not sure if open development excludes that activity, but it is something to bear in mind. And this activity is certainly not limited to NGOs — scientific bodies also have media teams who would probably strongly resist a move to “continuous integration”. I think I’ll file this issue under “institutional ego”: something that does not sit well with FOSS development.

One NGO asked about including land use in our assessments. One approach is the nexus concept, which some projects are now working toward (Brouwer et al 2018).

@tom_brown pointed out offline that analysis using SWITCH was used to simultaneously support and advocate for a law on 100% renewable generation by 2045 for Hawaii. Fripp (2016) provides background.

The openmod “associated” (the openmod cannot apply in its own right) COST application (discussed here) will probably include a component for NGO outreach. So we need to think about how that might be best operationalized.

Finally, those who like to loiter on twitter can follow #freethemodels By all accounts, similar sentiments to those here but quite a different audience.

References

Brouwer, Floor, Georgios Avgerinopoulos, Dora Fazekas, Chrysi Laspidou, Jean-Francois Mercure, Hector Pollitt, Eunice Pereira Ramos, and Mark Howells (1 January 2018). “Energy modelling and the Nexus concept”. Energy Strategy Reviews. 19: 1–6. ISSN 2211-467X. doi:10.1016/j.esr.2017.10.005. Creative Commons CC-BY-4.0 license.

COST. What are COST actions?. European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST). Webpage.

Fripp, Matthias (29 June 2016). Consensus-based power system planning using open assumptions and models — Presentation. Manoa, Hawaii, USA: University of Hawaii.

Wiese, Frauke, Gesine Bökenkamp, Clemens Wingenbach, and Olav Hohmeyer (1 September 2014). “An open source energy system simulation model as an instrument for public participation in the development of strategies for a sustainable future”. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment. 3 (5): 490–504. ISSN 2041-840X. doi:10.1002/wene.109. Paywalled.


#5

Another update following several more conversations. A well‑known NGO is apparently considering a strategic shift away from analysis and toward action. My response is that the satellite community concept (outlined earlier) can and should span both aspects.

Inconvenienced car drivers at an anti‑coal protest in Berlin on 1 February 2019 questioned protesters blocking their way as to whether 100% renewable generation was indeed possible. A good question. Some incumbent NGOs blithely say yes — but with no real understanding of the system architectural, market design, public acceptance, and related challenges and trade‑offs that lie ahead.

Numerical studies from the open energy modeling community (and others) indicate too that the answer is yes (for instance, Brown et al 2018). But more importantly, these studies can articulate and shed light on a number of key questions that the interested public will need to address regarding which 100% renewable future they would prefer or at least be willing to accept.

Experience in Hawaii with the SWITCH open electricity system model and a fork developed by E3 shows that NGO involvement and advocacy can work in tandem with sophisticated modeling and analysis. These two tweets from communications lead Kamal Kapadia indicate the role played by the Blue Planet Foundation:

Just some context and a plug for my organization, #BluePlanetFound: Hawaii was first state in the US to pass a law requiring 100% RE by 2045. The critical factor was advocacy and collaboration between non‑profits, who used research and models strategically.

#BluePlanetFound literally pounded halls of State Capitol every year for 10 yrs to get this law passed. Early on the Governor called our Exec Director “Harry Potter” for pushing for 100%. But now it’s the law. So research/models PLUS advocacy is key.

Therefore, European NGOs should not deprioritize analysis to capitalize on rapidly ramping public concern about our climate emergency. They should also recognize the need for the interested public to work on solutions too (Wallace-Wells 2019). It would indeed be retrograde to see NGOs and their umbrella organizations swap to sloganeering and mobilization without also contributing to a longer view. Emphasizing urgency is useful, but we also need a common and open journey toward deep and necessarily highly intertwined solutions.

On a more practical note, one German NGO and one Berlin university research group have tentatively offered to host a meeting in Berlin. More soon.

References

Blue Planet Foundation (ongoing). Blue Planet Foundation. Blue Planet Foundation. Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. Website.

Brown, Tom W, T Bischof-Niemz, K Blok, C Breyer, Henrik Lund, and Brian Vad Mathiesen (1 September 2018). “Response to ‘Burden of proof: a comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems’”. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 92: 834–847. ISSN 1364-0321. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2018.04.113. Creative Commons CC-BY-4.0 license.

Fripp, Matthias (27 December 2018). “Intercomparison between Switch 2.0 and GE MAPS models for simulation of high-renewable power systems in Hawaii”. Energy, Sustainability and Society. 8 (1): 41. ISSN 2192-0567. doi:10.1186/s13705-018-0184-x.

Johnston, Josiah, Rodrigo Henríquez, Benjamín Maluenda, and Matthias Fripp (17 October 2018). “Switch 2.0: a modern platform for planning high-renewable power systems”. Preprint arXiv:1804.05481v3.

Wallace-Wells, David (2 February 2019). “‘The devastation of human life is in view’: what a burning world tells us about climate change”. The Guardian. London, United Kingdom. ISSN 0261-3077. Author’s upcoming book is ISBN 978-024135521-3.