First there was Moore's Law; now, 'Gore's Law'?

Former US VP sees solar advances on same dramatic path as chip tech

In pushing the US to produce all of its electricity from environmentally friendly sources in 10 years, former Vice President Al Gore points to the accomplishments of the tech industry, especially the dramatic gains in computing capability, as an example of what tech innovators can do.

"Think about what happened in the computer revolution," Gore said on NBC's Meet the Press program on Sunday. "We saw cost reductions for silicon computer chips of 50 per cent for every year and a half for the last 40 years," he said. "We're now beginning to see the same kind of sharp cost reductions as the demand grows for solar cells -- they build new, more efficient facilities to build these solar cells."

Gore, who has formed a group, The Alliance for Climate Protection, for solar cell creation, was referring to Moore's Law, which explains the dramatic gains in compute performance. It stems from a 1965 paper written by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, which found that the number of transistors put on a chip doubles every 18 months.

But does Moore's Law also apply to the solar energy industry? The short answer is no. As with microprocessor technology, price and performance of photovoltaic solar electric cell is improving. And Gore can clearly point to price drops of solar cells to make his case. But the efficiency of those solar cells - their ability to convert sunlight into electric energy - is not increasing as rapidly.

In 1980, a solar cell cost about US$18 a watt; today that cost ranges roughly from $3 to $4 a watt, although some manufacturers say they can get the price much lower. For instance, XsunX, has said its technology can produce energy for US$1.58 a watt; It's aiming for improvements that would take that price below a $1 a watt.

But solar cells are just one aspect of the cost of solar power. Solar modules, the panels that comprise solar cells, have to be constructed with equipment such as inverters that convert DC into AC power, batteries and increasingly expensive metals, such as copper. Those necessities can double the per-watt cost of what someone pays for electricity from their utility. That's one reason installations are heavily subsidized by the government.

Microprocessors use silicon, as so do solar electric cells. But while microprocessor producers can use improved design and manufacturing techniques to improve chip efficiency and performance, improvements to solar cells means changing materials. "Solar cells are dealing with the material science...," said Bill Johnson, senior research engineer at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa, Fla. "It's really hard to change the materials."

Although the cost of producing solar cells has declined, their ability to convert sunlight into electricity, remains low. Sunlight delivers about 1 kilowatt of energy per square meter, and only around 10 per cent of it is converted into electricity though some laboratories and companies report higher efficiency results.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Patrick Thibodeau

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?