Moore’s Law and the Trajectory for Renewable Energy


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.

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  • Bill

    “Black Swans” and paving 1/12th of New Mexico with thermal collectors – when NM has no water – you’re dreamin’ in technicolor with this article.

    Forget that electricity is less than 25% of total daily energy use or that the the trillions needed to build and distribute RE and reinvent transportation – so there might be some replacement for today’s liquid fuels – were shoved down a rat hole called financial fraud over the past decade, and you’re really dreamin’ in technicolor.

    Do it locally – I make twice the energy I use – or STFU. This short term hyping isn’t helping anyone’s actual future prospects.

  • Ronald W. Garrison

    Bill–I don’t know that I see the significance of “black swans,” either, but OTOH you’re far off the mark on your other comments.

    First of all, the land requirements for solar are not a barrier. Some simple math shows there’s plenty of sunlight available, without taking up enough land to pose a problem. Second, electricity is at least 30% of energy use, probably a little more by now. Yes, it will cost trillions. Guess what? ANY solution, or combination of solutions, to future energy needs, will require trillions. Globally, we spend trillions every year on energy. Solar will cost fewer trillions than its competitors.

    There is an endless supply of critics who are short on facts and long on cute phrases like “dreamin’ in technicolor.” Put forth something to support your case. Or to put it in acronyms, PUOSTFU.

  • Craig Shields

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comments. The reference to Black Swans may not have been a good idea. My concept was that unanticipated breakthroughs have the potential to keep Moore’s Law on track. I.e., where certain technological avenues meet with dead ends, other new ones — those that no one could have forecasted — may open up to enable the continuous doubling of efficacy.

  • Ronald W. Garrison

    It would be interesting to know if a name has ever been applied to this phenomenon. I first encountered it in a book of future predictions by a guy named Stone (Irving? not sure), in 1970. (Sure wish I could remember the title.) He talked about S-curves describing a lot of changes, and how a whole succession of S-curves could amount to one giant S-curve, with each one taking over where the others left off.

    Of course, keep in mind that, just because something seems to be on an exponential trajectory, that does not, ipso facto, guarantee that it will continue to do so. I got in a big row a couple of weeks by dissing the lecture of one Professor Albert Bartlett (whose lecture is no YouTube), where he carries on about the looming crisis of the exponential growth of human population. I had a hard time getting certain participants to understand that that growth has been departing from an exponential curve more and more since about 1963, and I’m aghast that a professor of mathematics is going on about this, here in the 21st Century. Of course, we know that Moore’s Law has covered vastly more of an increase than the roughly exponential segment for human population that ended about 45 years ago. But even there, Moore’s Law has probably not covered any more time than the human population exponential period–it’s just covered more of an increase.

    My main point here is that ** AFAIK ** there is no barrier to prevent solar prices, and growth, from following a similar kind of growth over the next few decades, although it won’t be nearly as fast as Moore’s Law. (Few things are. OTOH, some things have exploded faster–for example, the installation of fiber optic communication capacity, which for a while was doubling over an interval of around 6 to 9 months.)

  • Craig Shields

    I think the over-riding issue here is not Moore’s Law as it applies to the development of technology in a free, market-driven world that genuinely has an appetitite. Unless I’m way wrong here, the migration to renewables will continue to be hamstrung by the forces that are far more powerful coming from big money and politics: subsidies, political favors, etc.

    Why don’t we (in the US) have a federal energy policy that firmly takes us towards health, safety, and sustainability? Are we to suppose that this is an accident? No, there are enormously powerful forces behind our actions (or lack thereof) — forces that trump the natural tendencies that may exist within free markets.

  • Ronald W. Garrison

    Craig, surely there’s no doubt that you are right to a great degree. There are vested interests that stand to lose a lot of money by a transition away from fossil fuels. As Upton Sinclair said some 70 or 80 years ago, it is extraordinary difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it! But are those established interests gods? No. I’m sure the makers of gas lamps and town gas tried to oppose Edison’s electric light. The whaling industry probably wasn’t keen on kerosene arriving on the scene to fill up lamps instead of whale oil. If an idea has enough potential, it can be slowed by such interests, but not stopped.

    Relating this to the current context, we can now see growth trajectories and trends for renewable energy sources. 10 or 20 years ago, their contributions were so small their potential could be dismissed–who knew what would happen? It’s getting much harder to do that now, with significant chunks of the energy picture getting attributable to these sources.

  • Craig Shields

    All of this is 100% true.

  • Mark Petry

    one of the interesting backside relationships to the phenomenon of Moore’s law – density doubling every 18 months – is that the captial cost of the semiconductor fab required to build each successive generation of chips grew at an even faster rate! I think the same is true of solar. The other thing that’s interesting is that the depreciation and ROI timespan of solar / PV systems today is so long that by the time you’re reached payback, the system is obsolete – partly because the state of the art in terms of watts / square meter is growing so fast. I suppose that during the computer industry boom the same thing was going on – by the time you got your computer home it had been made obsolete by the next generation of chip. Hmm.

    • Ronald W. Garrison

      Mark, you have about four different things you’re saying there, and I have different responses to each–

      1. cost of fabs–an important consideration. I wasn’t aware that the cost of fabs was actually rising faster than the complexity of chips. Of course, in the end what matters is how that affects the cost of individual devices. We know that the cost per watt for PV cells is not rising, but declining. To what extent the cost of fabs may be inhibiting that decline is an interesting question. I also wonder if fab construction costs really are rising for PV in the same way as for computer chips–they’re very different devices, with much less complexity.

      2. The ROI timespan for PV is not particularly long–anywhere from 1 to 4 years, from what I’ve read. In that period, I’m not convinced that obsolescence is that much of a problem, because…

      3. No, the watts/square meter is not growing that fast at all. Improvements have only been incremental over the past few decades. What’s the best efficiency you can buy these days, at a reasonable price? 20%? Even with major breakthroughs, then, anything more than about a fourfold improvement is not even physically possible, no matter what happens. (There is a possible, special exception–more efficiency, combined with more tolerance for more intense insolation, could allow for much less chip area, but the collection area (for concentrating mirrors) still could not decrease more than that modest amount, since you can never exceed 100%.)

      4. More rapid progress never seems to be much of a reason to hold off buying equipment. If improvement is slow, it doesn’t apply; and if it’s fast, once you’ve gone very far down that curve, then the improvements have already yielded made things attractive enough that you should go ahead and enjoy the benefits. If this kind of obsolescence is a problem, it’s certainly the kind you want to have.

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