Each year, we come across a new set of discussions on the subject of Moore’s Law – the idea that the potency of technology doubles every two years. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors that could be put onto an integrated circuit doubled with that regularity — and that this exponential growth persisted for an astonishingly long period of time.
Of course, we look upon this “law” figuratively. There is no secret force that makes it apply to every technology – or that requires the period of time in question to be exactly two years. But we’ve all seen adequate proof of the “spirit of the law,” i.e., that many technologies do, in fact, experience some sort of geometric expansion.
As we should have expected, it was only a matter of time until pundits began to debate the relation of Moore’s law to the energy industry. Recently we’ve seen numerous conversations regarding its application to the development of renewable energy technologies.
However, many people say that it simply doesn’t apply in this case, as such projected growth ignores the basic realities of energy: the long-term maturation of technologies, and the hard limits in efficiency that are put on us by more senior laws – namely those of physics itself. But here are a few points to consider:
1) The most exciting part of the energy industry is not about exploration for increasingly scarce fossil fuels; it’s about technology in areas that have nothing to do with oil and gas — and that are in the same nascent state today as IT was in the second half of the 20th Century when Moore was making his now-famous observation. In fact, clean energy is about dozens of different technologies: nano, bio, semiconductor, quantum mechanical, materials science, and nuclear — to name a few. Simultaneous to mankind’s pumping its oil fields dry, today we have frequent breakthroughs in dozens of different areas affecting renewable energy. Why shouldn’t we think that Moore’s Law is at least as applicable to this myriad of technologies as it is to silicon chips?
2) There remain many possibilities for “Black Swan” events in energy. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory of Black Swan events looks at the impact of one-off occurrences that are uncomputable and unforeseeable; the disaster of 9/11 and the development of the Internet are two examples that he and other scholars commonly offer. I’m sure you’ve heard people ask, for instance, “What’s the next Google?” I.e., what’s the next paradigm shift? That’s a legitimate question, don’t you think? I personally am quite convinced that the energy industry will experience quite a number of Googles in the coming 50 years or so.
3) Keep in mind the nature and scope of the problem we’re trying to solve. The Earth receives 6000 times more energy from the sun each day than all 7 billion of us consume. All we need is a solution that results in our capturing 1/6000th of this energy as useful work. For the entire continent of North America, we need a distributed solar thermal array totaling about 1/12 the size of New Mexico.
Would this be a challenge? Sure. So was gearing up to win World War II – but we did it. And once this is done, we can all turn our attention to something else — you name it – how about the eradication of poverty, illiteracy, and disease? Does that do anything for you? How about space exploration? My point here is that there is an “end game” – and that I believe we’re actually fairly close to seeing it.
Now, the idea that we’re just around the corner from this end game is good news for most people. But is it good for the traditional energy industry? No. And perhaps that’s why getting there will be so monstrously difficult. But we mustn’t dismiss the idea merely because it perturbs a few wealthy and powerful people who are hell-bent on becoming even wealthier and more powerful – even at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the rest of us. What we must do, on the contrary, is to know that the migration to renewables is a clear and immediate threat to the traditional energy industry – and that this creates political challenges that are 10 times tougher than the technology issues.
It’s going to take some real work getting there. But the prize is — shall we say — considerable.