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Why Moore’s Law Doesn’t Apply To Clean Technologies

Varun Sivaram, The Council on Foreign Relations

Over the weekend, Moore’s Law—the prediction that the number of transistors (building blocks) on an integrated circuit (computer chip or microchip) would double every two years—turned fifty years old. It so happens that the silicon solar panel, the dominant variety in the market today, is about the same age—roughly fifty-two years old. And over the last half-century, while the computing power of an identically sized microchip increased by a factor of over a billion, the power output of an identically sized silicon solar panel more or less doubled.

The contrast between Moore’s Law for microchips and the plodding progress of clean technology is bittersweet for me. Growing up, I would wait impatiently for my father to bring home a new computer, powered by a faster, next-generation processor—his office was across from Gordon Moore’s at Intel. When he founded a solar panel start-up, he brought the limitless optimism of Moore’s Law with him, but like myriad other cleantech start-ups, his company struggled to stay afloat given the surging tide of cheap, mediocre silicon solar panels from China.[2] My own doctoral research focused on exciting alternatives to silicon solar panels, but those alternatives face a daunting barrier to entry from large silicon firms. So while I celebrate the startling prescience with which Gordon Moore, in 1965, predicted the density of transistors fifty years hence and every year in between, I reject the notion that clean technologies like solar panels and batteries follow a Moore-esque decline in cost.

Unfortunately, a chorus of voices in the mainstream media have echoed the claim that Moore’s Law is guiding the regular decline in clean technology costs as production increases, enabling a massive energy transition from fossil fuels. In an excellent 2011 piece, Michael Kanellos at Forbes gently corrected this claim, but he was still too charitable in conceding that clean energy advocates were “wrong in the particulars, but right in their outlook.”

Rather, that outlook is far too complacent, satisfied with pedestrian cost declines and stagnating performance in lieu of disruptive technology advances, more in line with Moore’s Law. To date, there have been three crucial differences between Moore’s law for microchips and the historical cost declines of solar panels and batteries:

1. Moore’s Law is a consequence of fundamental physics. Clean technology cost declines are not.

2. Moore’s Law is a prediction about innovation as a function of time. Clean technology cost declines are a function of experience, or production.

3. Why this all matters – Moore’s Law provided a basis to expect dramatic performance improvements that shrank mainframes to mobile phones. Clean technology cost declines do not imply a similar revolution in energy.

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