Continuing serialization of Mark Mills’ report New Energy Economy: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. This is part 7 Moore’s Law Misapplied. Moore is well known for his prediction that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit would double every two years. But Mills points out this doesn’t work for renewable energy.
Moore’s Law Misapplied
Faced with all the realities outlined above regarding green technologies, new energy economy enthusiasts nevertheless believe that true breakthroughs are yet to come and are even inevitable. That’s because, so it is claimed, energy tech will follow the same trajectory as that seen in recent decades with computing and communications. The world will yet see the equivalent of an Amazon or “Apple of clean energy.”70
This idea is seductive because of the astounding advances in silicon technologies that so few forecasters anticipated decades ago. It is an idea that renders moot any cautions that wind/solar/batteries are too expensive today—such caution is seen as foolish and shortsighted, analogous to asserting, circa 1980, that the average citizen would never be able to afford a computer. Or saying, in 1984 (the year that the world’s first cell phone was released), that a billion people would own a cell phone, when it cost $9,000 (in today’s dollars). It was a two-pound “brick” with a 30-minute talk time.
Today’s smartphones are not only far cheaper; they are far more powerful than a room-size IBM mainframe from 30 years ago. That transformation arose from engineers inexorably shrinking the size and energy appetite of transistors, and consequently increasing their number per chip roughly twofold every two years—the “Moore’s Law” trend, named for Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.
The compound effect of that kind of progress has indeed caused a revolution. Over the past 60 years, Moore’s Law has seen the efficiency of how logic engines use energy improve by over a billionfold.71 But a similar transformation in how energy is produced or stored isn’t just unlikely; it can’t happen with the physics we know today.
In the world of people, cars, planes, and large-scale industrial systems, increasing speed or carrying capacity causes hardware to expand, not shrink. The energy needed to move a ton of people, heat a ton of steel or silicon, or grow a ton of food is determined by properties of nature whose boundaries are set by laws of gravity, inertia, friction, mass, and thermodynamics.
If combustion engines, for example, could achieve the kind of scaling efficiency that computers have since 1971—the year the first widely used integrated circuit was introduced by Intel—a car engine would generate a thousandfold more horsepower and shrink to the size of an ant.72 With such an engine, a car could actually fly, very fast.
If photovoltaics scaled by Moore’s Law, a single postage-stamp-size solar array would power the Empire State Building. If batteries scaled by Moore’s Law, a battery the size of a book, costing three cents, could power an A380 to Asia.
But only in the world of comic books does the physics of propulsion or energy production work like that. In our universe, power scales the other way.
An ant-size engine—which has been built—produces roughly 100,000 times less power than a Prius. An antsize solar PV array (also feasible) produces a thousandfold less energy than an ant’s biological muscles. The energy equivalent of the aviation fuel actually used by an aircraft flying to Asia would take $60 million worth of Tesla-type batteries weighing five times more than that aircraft.73
The challenge in storing and processing information using the smallest possible amount of energy is distinct from the challenge of producing energy, or of moving or reshaping physical objects. The two domains entail different laws of physics.
The world of logic is rooted in simply knowing and storing the fact of the binary state of a switch—i.e., whether it is on or off. Logic engines don’t produce physical action but are designed to manipulate the idea of the numbers zero and one. Unlike engines that carry people, logic engines can use software to do things such as compress information through clever mathematics and thus reduce energy use. No comparable compression options exist in the world of humans and hardware.
Of course, wind turbines, solar cells, and batteries will continue to improve significantly in cost and performance; so will drilling rigs and combustion turbines (a subject taken up next). And, of course, Silicon Valley information technology will bring important, even dramatic, efficiency gains in the production and management of energy and physical goods (a prospect also taken up below). But the outcomes won’t be as miraculous as the invention of the integrated circuit, or the discovery of petroleum or nuclear fission
Upcoming is Part 8 Sliding Down the Renewable Asymptote.