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Profile: Ramez Naam
Ramez Naam was a participant or observer in the following events:
Author and computer scientist Ramez Naam writes a column for Scientific American explaining how “Moore’s Law” is at work in the dropping cost of solar energy generation. The benefits are obvious, he writes: “If humanity could capture one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth—one part in one thousand—we would have access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. At the current rate of energy consumption increase—about 1 percent per year—we will not be using that much energy for another 180 years.” Currently, solar energy only makes up 0.2 percent of the world’s energy production, mostly because the systems to capture and use solar energy are, he says, “expensive and inefficient.” But that is changing for the better. Moore’s Law is an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which he said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled each year. Moore predicted that trend would continue. Later observations codified the “law” to say that the number of transistors per square inch would double approximately every 18 months, in essence doubling the amount of computing power available to a given computer every 18 months. Naam is extrapolating the law to apply to the exponential decrease in the cost of generating solar energy. “If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology,” he writes, “then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone—incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.” Naam takes data generated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977) to note that since 1980, the cost of solar energy has dropped from $22 to $3 per watt. It is an almost perfect exponential drop, on average, trending at an average of a 7 percent drop in the dollars per watt cost per year. 2010 data indicates that the drop in price may be accelerating. Two main factors are driving this price drop: solar manufacturers are continually improving their abilities to reduce the costs of developing solar energy systems, and the efficiency of solar cells is rising dramatically. Laboratory results show solar efficiencies as high as 41 percent, and inexpensive thin-film methods (see 1972 and 1988) are achieving up to 20 percent efficiency in the lab, twice as high as most of the solar systems in use today. Moreover, installation costs are dropping as rapidly as technology costs. Naam writes that the trends indicate that the cost of solar will rival that of average retail conventionally generated electricity, about 12 cents per kilowatt hours, by 2020, or sooner. By 2030, solar electricity will cost half of what it will cost to generate electricity with coal. Naam writes: “Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.” Naam concludes: “The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity. That’s good news for the world.” [Scientific American, 3/16/2011; Investopedia, 2013]
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