Why a Moore's Law for green tech doesn't compute

Saying we need a Moore's Law for green tech can be an aspirational goal but don't expect our energy system to change as fast as your computer processor.

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
6 min read

Claiming that green technologies need to follow Moore's Law has been called both inspirationally ambitious and dangerously misguided.

No one will have the "right" answer on this but here's my take: Nearly all technologies progress over time, but expecting clean-energy technologies to follow the same time scale of the IT industry, where Moore's Law rules, is bound to disappoint.

How quickly we can convert our huge energy system to something cleaner is an important question, particularly as more prominent people recommend a big boost in energy research to improve national competitiveness.

Optimists say we would have a rapid shift away from fossil fuels to cleaner-energy technologies if there was the equivalent of Moore's Law for solar, wind, electric cars, and the like.

How well does it translate? Moore's Law is the prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors will double on a chip about every 18 months, which has yielded a remarkable improvement in computing processing power for over 40 years.

During a visit to an ARPA-E grant award winner last week, I asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu whether he thinks there will ever be a Moore's Law in energy. Chu last week argued that the U.S. needs to take steps to speed up innovation in clean technologies, saying the U.S. is having a "Sputnik moment" in China's rapid embrace of energy technologies. He saw merit in the Moore's Law analogy, but offered caveats.

Energy secretary Steven Chu last week at solar start-up 1366 Technologies.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week at solar start-up 1366 Technologies Martin LaMonica/CNET

"Virtually every technology follows a Moore's Law, including the energy technologies. By that I mean, if you plot the amount of money that goes into deployment, the costs go down exponentially," he responded. "Now having said that, the slope[s] of the Moore's Law are different," he added with a laugh.

In solar photovoltaics, for example, the cost of large installations is about $4 per watt. It's clear that over the next four years or less, the cost will go down to about $2 per watt. But if solar got to $1 per watt, then it would become "ubiquitous" without subsidies, he said.

For that $2 to $1 jump, though, you can't just rely on cranking up existing manufacturing facilities. That's why he advocates a long-term commitment to federal spending on clean-energy research.

"Research is the absolute driver--bar none, because we do not have today the technologies that can get us to $1 a watt," he said. "Going from $4 to $3 is just higher productivity, mass production, things like that. To get to $1 you actually need some new ideas, better performance."

There's a growing chorus of people who argue that the U.S. should pursue those types of technical breakthroughs.

Last week the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended a four-year plan to boost innovation in clean energy through several measures, including a big boost in research. Similarly, the American Innovation Council, which is headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine and counts Bill Gates, venture capitalist John Doerr, and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt as members, recommends more than tripling energy research spending, which lags far behind other big U.S. industries.

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New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been using Moore's Law for energy devices in his columns for some time. Inspired by comments from electric-car company Better Place CEO Shai Agassi, Friedman earlier this year wrote about the Moore's Law for electric cars where the cost per mile of the electric car will drop in half every 18 months.

Many others see energy and environment as ripe for rapid innovation. Intel's general manager of its Eco-Technology group, Lori Wigle, earlier this year said the chip giant is trying to bring Moore's Law to the electricity grid. The former head of GE's Ecomagination intiative, Steve Fludder, said new technologies, such as direct-drive wind turbines and thin-film solar cells, shows that energy can follow the path of the semiconductor industry.

In some respects, you could argue this is actually playing out. Efficient LED lighting, for example, just a few years ago was far too expensive for average homeowners. Now, LED manufacturers have been able to boost light output and quality to the point where they are being made for general lighting and sold through big-box retailers. Following what's called Haitz' Law which predicts that LED output will double every 18 months, the price for a 60-watt equivalent LED is about $40 or $50 now but projected by some to go down to $10 in two years.

Miniaturization need not apply
But if you look at the entire green technology field covering energy, water, and materials, you see the limits of the Moore's Law analogy. It serves as a good mental model, an inspiration for rapid technology improvement. But there are some fundamental differences between converting energy into useful work and the miniaturization of semiconductors predicted by Moore's Law.

First, consider how much information technology has changed in your lifetime. Anybody else remember getting online pre-Web with a 1200 Baud modem from a now-vintage IBM PC? People who aren't "digital natives" should be astounded at how much computing power has changed in our lifetime, bringing today's mobile phones, tablets, and other powerful digital gadgets.

By contrast, energy transitions--from wood to coal and coal to oil, for example--take many decades. Vaclav Smil, who has written several books on the history of science and engineering, specializes in throwing cold water on optimistic technology scenarios, calling it "Moore's curse." The bigger the infrastructure, the slower the change, Smil argues.

Also, energy technologies don't necessarily benefit from miniaturization, as computers do. To lower the cost of power, a solar cell needs to be more efficient at converting light to electricity and be cheaper to manufacture and install. Making it smaller reduces the area of light capture so that's not the main design priority.

People seriously involved in energy technologies push back on expecting the speed of Moore's Law. One of IBM's top energy storage scientists in a September interview said "Forget Moore's Law--it's nothing like that" when talking about batteries.

Bill Gates, who is clearly a technology optimist, earlier this year said that the IT industry has "spoiled" people to expect technology to change very rapidly in other fields.

"We've all been spoiled and deeply confused by the IT model," Gates said at the Techonomy conference in August. "Exponential improvement--that is rare." He said that batteries, in particular, have "deep physical limits. I am funding five battery start-ups and there are probably 50 out there. (But) that is a very tough problem. It may not be solvable in any sort of economic way."

For another example, look at non-food biofuels. Some former IT professionals jumped into biofuels hoping to bring products to market quickly, but nobody has been able to commercialize that technology at scale on the hoped-for schedule.

Looking ahead
So even if Bill Gates says batteries and the like don't follow Moore's Law, does that mean that our energy system will remain stuck in the 19th century? Not at all.

With many scientists and engineers researching various paths in energy storage, for example, there is bound to be a step up in performance. Those performance improvements set the bar for future research and deployment and the technology as a whole improves, but in most cases in energy it just takes takes longer.

There's also the dimension of money and policy in this discussion. Developing energy-related technologies takes a lot more capital to develop than a successful Web service. Famed venture capitalist John Doerr notes that fuel cell maker Bloom Energy has required at least $250 million in funding so far while Google went public after only $25 million in investment.

Another thing that changes slowly is policy. Former clean-energy guru at Google Dan Reicher said one of the reasons he's moving to a policy position at Stanford is to address the slow pace of policy change. "Even when there are good technological advances, there aren't policy signals or adequate capital to make changes," he said at an event last week.

To be clear, saying that energy transitions take a long time is not another way of saying we shouldn't bother. If anything, understanding the difficulty of making the energy system cleaner argues for starting right away on long-term technology research programs.