Some Experts Say “Moore’s Law Does Not Apply To Solar PV” – Kurzweil (and Page) Disagree

Exponential growth of computing. 20th to 21st ...Image via Wikipedia

In his call to action two weeks ago, Al Gore compared the future development of solar electricity sources to the development of the semiconductor industry. His implication was that Moore’s Law, which reliably predicted that the price/performance of semiconductors doubled every 18 months, would also apply to photovoltaics.

ComputerWorld, in an article two weeks ago, assesses this comparison as flawed. (As did Harry Gray of Cal Tech, as I reported earlier today.)

“But does Moore’s Law also apply to the solar energy industry? The short answer is no. As with microprocessor technology, the price and performance of photovoltaic solar electric cell is improving. And Gore can clearly point to price drops of solar cells to make his case. But the efficiency of those solar cells — their ability to convert sunlight into electric energy — is not increasing as rapidly.”

The article goes on to suggest reasons that Moore’s Law might not apply – there’s a lot more to solar panels than just silicon, while the price/kilowatt has been coming down, it doesn’t seem to be coming down fast, etc.

However, there are other opinions. The best explainer and interpreter of Moore’s Law, and exponential growth in general, is Ray Kurzweil. His Law of Accelerating Returns is essentially a generalization of Moore’s Law that applies to all information technologies. (Learn a lot more about accelerating returns and exponential growth in his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.)

A panel convened by the National Association of Engineers, including Kurzweil and Larry Page of Google, concluded that:

“We are not that far away from a tipping point where energy from solar will be [economically] competitive with fossil fuels.”

Kurzweil characterizes solar energy technologies as “information technologies,” especially as nanotech gets into the picture.

“We also see an exponential progression in the use of solar energy,” he said. “It is doubling now every two years. Doubling every two years means multiplying by 1,000 in 20 years. At that rate we’ll meet 100 percent of our energy needs in 20 years.”

I think we may be at one of the most interesting points in human history, when technology is changing so fast around us that in twenty years the world will almost literally be unrecognizable compared to today. (One of the side effects of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that the world changes completely on a regular basis – it just gets faster and faster!)

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CalTech Chemist Puts 10-year Target on “Competitive Solar Energy”

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

Harry Gray, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at CalTech, spoke at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in April of this year.

Expert Foresees 10 More Years Of Research & Development To Make Solar Energy Competitive

Gray emphasized this point: “The pressure is on chemists to make hydrogen from something other than natural gas or coal. We’ve got to start making it from sunlight and water.”

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High Fuel Prices Turn Out To Be A Good Incentive For Carpooling

Propaganda poster from the United States gover...Image via Wikipedia

It’s fun to see the articles and news reports on the upside of high gas prices – last night on the KTVU news was a report on how the air is getting a bit cleaner in the Bay Area because people are driving less.

Along these lines, Technology Review had an article the other day about technology-enabled car-pooling. On both general advertising sites like Craigslist and carpool-specific sites, drivers and riders are getting together to get together.

Although some people turned to these sites long ago to help reduce pollution or take advantage of faster, high-occupancy vehicle lanes that require at least two occupants, the pocketbook has been the largest influencer of all.

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Leading VC talks about investing in energy efficiency

Public Domain. Credit information: Hinode JAXA/NASA
Public Domain. Credit information: Hinode JAXA/NASA

Every day I get emails about “clean tech financing this” and “clean tech financing that” – last year there was over $7 billion in investments in clean technologies in the U.S. In this interview in the San Jose Merc, Paul Holland of Foundation Capital describes some of his philosophy on clean tech investment, including a strong focus on technologies that will reduce energy demand:

“The first lesson is there’s nothing wrong with a capital-efficient investment, even in clean tech. The second lesson is, look what happens when you don’t pay attention to the first lesson.”

Foundation has just closed a new $750 million fund, $250 million of which will be focused on clean tech, primarily on the demand side, although they are making some investments in supply as well – solar and biofuels.

Holland is also building a new, extremely energy efficient home in Portola Valley, CA. One of his goals for the building is to make much of the design reusable for other new homes.

“Once you get over the custom elements, it can be reproduced if you want to go down that road.”

You can hear more about Holland’s green energy investing in this Weather Channel interview on Forecast Earth: “Green Venture Capital In Depth”.

Walmart’s Solar Roofs = A Manhattan of PVs

Artists conception - Manhattan covered with solar cells
Artist's conception - Manhattan covered with solar cells. If Walmart covers all its roofs with solar cells, they'll cover an area equal to Manhattan

The New York Times has a story today about the big box stores rushing to get solar cells on their roofs before a Federal tax break expires at the end of December. The article’s analysis is that they are primarily doing it for PR purposes, since PV-based energy is still a lot more expensive than conventional. The benefits of being able to say they are green are compelling. But the companies put a slightly different spin on it:

But retailers believe that they can achieve economies of scale. With coal and electricity prices rising, they are also betting that solar power will become more competitive, especially if new policies addressing global warming limit the emissions from coal plants.

Retailers, hoping to create a bigger market and positioning themselves at the forefront of a national shift toward renewable energy, are encouraging one another to join the bandwagon.

The current rule of thumb is that the U.S. gets about 0.1% of its electricity today from solar energy, doubling about every year (among other places, mentioned in this interview with Ray Kurzweil on NPR’s Science Friday).

I wonder how those numbers will change after this rush by the retailers?

Efficiency profitable for energy-independent Denmark

Thomas Friedman’s OpEd on Sunday describes how Denmark has achieved energy independence, and illustrates the numerous benefits for the country, including a very low unemployment rate and a large new export market.

When the 1973 oil shock hit, Denmark got 99 percent of its energy from the Middle East. Now they get zero. The country has combined massive energy efficiency programs, such as using waste heat from power plants to heat homes (known as “cogeneration”), with alternative energy sources like windmills (20% of their energy comes from the wind now), effective use of their own petroleum resources in the North Sea, and incentives for lowering energy use via high taxes on gasoline.

As a result, Danes enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, an extremely low unemployment rate, and a healthy export sector in alternative energy products.

Because it was smart taxes and incentives that spurred Danish energy companies to innovate, Ditlev Engel, the president of Vestas — Denmark’s and the world’s biggest wind turbine company — told me that he simply can’t understand how the U.S. Congress could have just failed to extend the production tax credits for wind development in America.

Engel suggests why this might concern us here in the United States.

“We’ve had 35 new competitors coming out of China in the last 18 months, and not one out of the U.S.”

If Denmark has been able to achieve 100% energy independence, at net benefit to their society economically, what does that say about America’s chances? Denmark has some advantages – it’s much smaller than the U.S., it has new oilfields in the North Sea – but we have advantages as well – our Southwest is much better for solar than anywhere in Denmark, we have whole states available for wind power, we have comparatively high rates of energy inefficiency that represent massive “negawatts.” Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute has outlined a set of steps for getting the U.S. off oil by 2025 – Winning The Oil End Game – that provides one possible, well-researched scenario for a profitable transition.

In the 35 years since the ’73 oil shock, Denmark has accomplished something remarkable. Now we in the U.S. need to set ourselves a similar goal. Using new technologies, such as the fuel cell breakthroughs I mentioned last week (here and here), we should be able to get there a lot faster than 35 years.

Is this solar energy analysis is too simplistic?

According to this analysis from Clean Edge, (which I saw originally in the San Jose Mercury News, Solar energy cost may rival other forms soon, study says – SiliconValley.com):

Solar energy will cost the same as power produced by coal, natural gas and nuclear plants in about a decade, a report released Tuesday suggests. By then, the price parity could propel solar adoption so that it accounts for 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2025

If you listen to this kind of thinking, solar energy (which is defined as what, by the way?) is still far more expensive than other kinds. But solar energy, even today, has a finite payback time – if I put solar collectors on my roof, for example, eventually they will pay for themselves.

So that’s one way it’s wrong.

Secondly, the study assumes that conventional energy prices will go up by 3% per year. That could be a slight underestimate. Didn’t we just experience a three month period where gas prices nearly doubled? (That’s 100%, folks!).

I can’t make any argument about the assumption that solar energy prices will come down 18% per year. That’s a lot, by one metric, but we’ve certainly seen large and faster price drops in high tech in the past. Even the iPhone last month, which dropped in price by almost 50% in less than a year. Sure, that was partly through some magic AT&T financial pixie dust, but to the user, it’s a clear 50% price cut. There’s no reason similar magic pixie dust, whether from the government or from the utilities themselves, won’t contribute to market price declines.

The claim that solar currently accounts for less than 1/10th of a percent of the U.S. energy supply today is fine. But the assumption that it will still be less than 1 percent in 2015 (seven years from now) is curious. If we start at .1 percent, and double our solar usage every year, we end up at 128 times as much – 12.8% of today’s total. This is the amazing power of Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Even if it takes two years for each doubling, we’re still up a factor of 32x in seven years. That means 3.2% today’s usage. Our total energy usage may also go up (although there are very good reasons to think it may not go up much and and will be starting a downward trajectory), but for a 32x increase in solar supply to translate to 1% of our total energy use, total energy use would have to double. Not too likely in the U.S., where population growth has stopped, and SUVs are starting their long decline.

Finally, there’s good reason to believe that solar energy will actually have a much larger share of U.S. energy usage, due to the power of “negawatts” (as explained brilliantly by Amory Lovins in this series of talks at Stanford in 2007), in which efficiency turns out to be the most cost effective way to power industry and create profits. Oh, and by the way, it significantly reduces our energy usage, by as much as a factor of five to seven!

The article combines a couple of types of fallacious thinking – that technological progress is linear, for example, rather than geometric, and that other factors, such as the desire to reduce greenhouse gases or realizing the benefits of negawatts throughout the economy, don’t have an additional accelerating effect on technology changes.

Feds drop some pocket change on the California Clean Tech Open

The California Clean Tech Open, a three-year-old competition for clean technology startups, got a nice little present from the Department of Energy the other day – a $100,000 grant focused on sustainable building technologies.

The Clean Tech Open focuses on an annual “Business Plan” competition, where clean tech entrepreneurs compete for the six top prizes of a $100,000 “startup in a box” including office space, cash, and services. They’ve already awarded over $1.2 million in prizes, and over three-quarters of their winners are still in business and have raised nearly $70 million in funding.

The DOE grant, part of their Zero Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI),is intended to help the Clean Tech Open initiate a clean building category in the competition. Despite the relatively small amount of the grant (for now), it’s a significant milestone. This is the first disbursement in a $250 million program that the DOE and other agencies are administering with the goal of “all new commercial buildings to be so efficient in energy consumption and in on-site renewable energy generation that they offset any energy use from the grid,” part of the Energy Independence & Security Act (EISA) of 2007 passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last year.

Lara Abrams covers this in much more detail at her Clean Tech Report blog.

Clean and renewable energy also profitable for individuals who want jobs

A report from Worldwatch Institute details the way that traditional high carbon industries, such as coal, are shedding jobs while renewable energy and energy efficiency industries are adding jobs.

An estimated 2.3 million people worldwide currently work either directly in renewables or indirectly in supplier industries. The solar thermal industry employs at least 624,000 people, the wind power industry 300,000, and the solar PV industry 170,000. More than 1 million people work in the biomass and biofuels sector, while small-scale hydropower employs 39,000 individuals and geothermal employs 25,000.

It’s not just those people and organizations applying clean and renewable energy who are profiting, but also those doing the work.

More amazing energy storage news

I posted yesterday about three new breakthrough discoveries related to energy storage from the last week, but they keep on coming – here’s another:

Some researchers at Melbourne’s Monash University in Australia have made yet another breakthrough related to making fuel cells more feasible for general purpose use. Their breakthrough is related to a new cathode design, made with a much cheaper material than the typical platinum. The result is an order of magnitude reduction in the materials cost for the fuel cell.

Professor Maria Forsythe and her colleagues used a conducting polymer (a special plastic that conducts electricity) called poly(3,4-ethlenedioxythiphene), or PEDOT for the cathode, instead of platinum. The amount of platinum required for a passenger car fuel cell costs $3500 to $4000, and accounts for the major part of the cost of the fuel cell. Using PEDOT for the cathode reduces the cost to a few hundred dollars.

Forsyth says the cathode could also be used in zinc air batteries, which are under development for storing energy in cars.