Blogs, Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Solar

Moore’s Law of Renewable Energy

Moore's Lore by Dana BlankenhornThere is a lot of dispute among renewable energy advocates over whether Moore’s Law applies to what they do, or will ever apply.

Strictly speaking it should not. Gordon Moore was a trained scientist, who worked as an engineer. His famous Electronics article spoke only about circuit density on a silicon substrate. Moore himself has repeatedly said his law can’t go on forever.

But many other exponential improvements emerge naturally from Moore’s Law, so many that I wrote a book about them called Moore’s Lore. What we learned in making circuits smaller came to apply to other components.

  • Moore’s Law of Storage — it’s easy to see exponential improvements in magnetic storage. Desktops have hundreds of gigabytes of storage, some even terabytes, where my first hard drive 26 years ago had just 10 megabytes.
  • Moore’s Law of Optical Storage — We’ve gone from CD to DVD to BluRay. Progress is slowed by a need for standards that doesn’t exist in the magnetic world.
  • Moore’s Law of Optics — Dense Wide Division Multiplexing (DWDM) means we can run multiple channels on a single optical fiber, exponentially increasing carrying capacity by simply identifying colors.
  • Moore’s Law of Radios — A decade ago a 10 Mbps WiFi signal was considered great. Now laptops come with 100 Mbps standard. It’s possible because of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs), which Texas Instruments decided to focus on rather than microprocessors.

Then there are the other outgrowths of exponential abundance made possible by these other corallaries to Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law of Knowledge is what you’re soaking in. You have immediate access to exponentially more facts today than you did a decade ago. Or Moore’s Law of Connection, which your teenager is probably enjoying right now on his or her iPhone.

To the popular mind, all these other changes are just as much Moore’s Law as his original silicon conception. Moore’s Law has become a shorthand for the computerized world all around us, and for our (correct) assumption that it’s just going to get better and better, faster and faster.

So how does this apply to renewable energy?

 
Applied Materials Web solar imageSolar

In solar power it can apply pretty directly. Modern solar panels are based on the same substrate as chips, which is why Applied Materials got into the business. (The picture is from the Applied Materials blog.)

Solar panels need to improve along three dimensions — efficiency, cost, and useful life. Moore’s Law can help in all three areas.

Not only that but the benefits of Moore’s Law let scientists create breakthroughs that speed progress considerably. The networks made possible by Moore’s Law not only bring like-minded researchers together efficiently, but disseminate their breakthroughs rapidly through the market. CAD systems made possible by Moore’s Law speed the design of factories.

And best of all it builds on itself. The effectiveness of solar solutions does keep doubling, and will keep doubling, for many years to come. New designs will process solar radiation more efficiently, there will be lower-cost solutions, useful life will increase. We know that. We must assume it in our business models if we’re to succeed in this business.

Geothermal

The new science Moore’s Law has made possible will in the next few years create real breakthroughs in geothermal energy.

Right now you can only site a plant where your heat source is relatively close to the ground but where the ground itself is stable. Think Reno, not Japan.

Materials science will make it possible for us to tap these hotter sources in the very near future. Conductive materials with melting points hotter than the volcano should be able to pass heat to electrical generation facilities. Hawaii could become the next Kuwait.

Delivery

The new materials science made possible by Moore’s Law is going to exponentially improve our ability to deliver more power while losing less. Transmission lines are going to become more effiicient and, in time, even less expensive. Other support systems are also going to improve.

Utilities are going to become the carriers of the new energy order. That is, they will be able to deliver more, but improvements will be delayed by bureaucracy and the desire of monopolists to gain monopoly rents from their investments. We know we can deal with that, because we’re dealing with it regarding Internet carriers.

Efficiency

Over the next few years, as small solar cells continue to improve, we’re going to see more-and-more devices taken off the grid entirely. Many highway signs are already off the grid. So are most calculators. Your iPhone is going to be recharged off-the-grid too. Then will come anything running on 6 volts of power or less, like this desktop computer I’m writing on.

Larger appliances are also going to get more efficient, their efficiency is going to double and then double again. This further reduces grid demand, and makes everything more robust. Once people can put solar panels on their roofs that can reliably supply their homes, and start selling power en masse back to the grid. A turning point will have been reached from which we won’t turn back.

I don’t know quite where that turning point is, in time. But it’s easy to extrapolate today’s trends and see it in our future. Even before that point is reached, significant downward pressure will come to bear on resource energy prices. Once the supply from renewables becomes equal to the increasing demands of the market — and with efficiency technologies we bring that day ever closer — our “energy crisis” will start to recede into the past, along with all the tensions it has brought, and we really will be able to start dealing with the problem of global warming, which in the end is just heat in the air that can be harvested like any other heat source.

All thanks to Moore’s Law, in all its forms. The revolution that began 39 years ago with the Intel 4004 is going to continue, and we’re all going to be along for the ride.