Can green tech operate under Moore's Law?

It's tough to match the speed of chips, but clean-energy technologies can follow a similar downward cost curve through higher manufacturing and periodic technology breakthroughs, say execs from GE and Intel.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

BOSTON--Doubling the performance of clean-energy technologies every 18 months, as the semiconductor industry has seen with Moore's Law, is a tough goal to hit. But the same technical and business concepts that underpin Moore's Law can play out in green tech, say executives from General Electric and Intel.

More businesses are seeking to make money around energy technology and environmental sustainability. But the scale and speed of innovation needs to ramp up in order to tackle environmental problems and conserve natural resources, according to a panel at the annual Ceres conference here on Thursday. Ceres is a network of investor groups and non-governmental organizations that advocates for environmental sustainability through investment and business.

As businesses try to innovate around energy and the environment, the IT industry has become a model for innovation, said Joel Makower, the executive editor of Greener World Media and panel moderator. Moore's Law, which predicts that the number of transistors a chip can hold will double every 18 months, has set the rapid pace of technology turnover in the IT industry, which is measured in months rather than years or decades as in energy.

Although it's not a perfect fit, a version of Moore's Law has been taking hold in clean-energy technologies, said Steve Fludder, vice president of Ecomagination at GE. It's also a guiding principle for employees within a company.

"'Eco' is our Moore's Law in driving deployment of innovation of this clean technology within the company," Fludder said after the panel. "And then within each technology, you can see a similar path like the semiconductor industry."

Green technologies are following the same type of cost curve as Moore's Law did in semiconductors, says Steve Fludder, vice president of Ecomagination at GE.

In the case of solar, higher volumes of manufacturing of silicon cells have steadily cut costs every year, while newer thin-film technologies pave the way for lower prices and jumps in performance. The same is happening in wind, where the quality and reliability of turbines improved as the industry ramped up in the past decade. Now, the industry is looking at direct-drive turbines for a boost in performance, Fludder said. A focus on environmental technologies also leads to other related technologies, such as the smart grid and energy storage.

That combination of cost improvement through manufacturing volume and performance jump through technology innovation are the "tick tock" of how Moore's Law works at Intel, said Lorie Wigle, the general manager of Intel's Eco-Technology Group.

That group was created a year ago to explore ways that Intel microprocessors can be used in home energy management, energy-efficient computing, building efficiency, plug-in vehicles, and renewable energy.

Intel sees the potential to apply Moore's Law to other industries, but tech companies need to appreciate the profound differences between information technology and energy technology, Wigle said.

"We used to talk naively about bringing Moore's Law to the electricity infrastructure. But then some people told us that a lot of infrastructure needs to sit there for 30 years and shouldn't be upgraded every few years," Wigle said.

Intel has become "much more sophisticated" in understanding how it can apply its products and develop a technology architecture for environmental sustainability, she said.

Internally, Intel has changed how it approaches Moore's Law. In 2006, Intel changed to incorporate energy efficiency into its technology road map, so "now what we deliver is performance, cost, and energy-efficiency improvements," Wigle said.

Quality time
Whether they aspire to the speed of Moore's Law or not, more companies are innovating around sustainability. Dell, for example, is investing in more efficient computers, environmentally friendly packaging, and recycling, said Mark Newton, director of sustainable business for the company. But some of the biggest challenges are institutional, not technical, panelists said.

Companies can save a significant amount of money by reducing the energy consumption of data centers, which has an environmental benefit as well. The technology is readily available and the economic incentive is there, but IT managers' performance has historically not been measured on energy consumption, said Chris Mines, senior vice president and research director at Forrester Research.

Green business efforts now appear to mirror the "quality movement" in business of 20 years ago, where companies focused on improving the quality of different tasks, such as manufacturing, product development, and customer service, Mines said. "We're at a moment now where sustainability has flipped so that it's not looked at as something run by a group of specialists," he said.

Today's environmental challenges requires more than the work of individual companies. Instead, companies from different industries need to collaborate, which is very difficult, said Stephen Doig from the Rocky Mountain Think Tank. For example, the rise of electric vehicles has forced automakers to collaborate with the industry utility to ensure that plugged in electric cars won't cause huge peaks in demand.

Policy plays a huge role in scaling up green technologies, said GE's Fludder. GE advocates programs that speed up renewable energy deployment and climate regulations to put a price on carbon emissions.

Even without these policies, though, GE's Ecomagination has been successful. The company invested $5 billion in the program and it has yielded $70 billion in sales over the past four and a half years. It now plans to double its investment to $10 billion over the next few years, said Fludder.

"We have a lot of customers who buy eco products and they're not buying them for environmental reasons and that's OK. They're buying for economic reason and the environmental (performance) goes along with it," he said.