30,000 Human Genomes to be Sequenced in 2011 – Exponential Growth

MIT Technology Review on the incredible rise in number of genomes sequenced per year:

Exponential: The number of human beings whose entire DNA sequence is known has increased dramatically.

This year, the world’s DNA-sequencing machines are expected to churn out 30,000 entire human genomes, according to estimates in Nature magazine. That is up from 2,700 last year and a few dozen in 2009. Recall that merely a decade ago, before the completion of the Human Genome Project, the number was zero. At this exponential pace, by 2020 it may be feasible—mathematically, at least—to decode the DNA of every member of humanity in a single 12-month stretch.

The vast increase in DNA data is occurring because of dazzling advances in sequencing technology. What cost hundreds of millions of dollars a decade ago now costs a mere $10,000. In a few years, decoding a person’s DNA might cost $100 or even less.

via A DNA Tower of Babel  – Technology Review.

My WFS2011 Talk: The Infinite Resource: Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth

I gave at talk this morning at the World Future Society 2011 Conference in Vancouver.   The talk was entitled The Infinite Resource:  Growing Prosperity While Reducing Impact on the Earth, and it looks at what the ultimate limits of growth and prosperity on this planet are, how we’ve gotten where we are, and how we choose the prosperous future rather than the one wrecked by climate change, ocean collapse, and peak oil.

This talk is also, by the way, more or less a summary of my forthcoming book due in 2012 of the same name.

Slides below:

Solar Cheaper than Coal in 3-5 Years? GE and First Solar Think So

The news is carrying two stories in the last two weeks pitching solar as potentially cheaper than current electrical rates in the next 3-5 years.

First, in an interview with Bloomberg, GE’s global research director Mark M. Little said that their thin film solar PV (now at 12.8% efficiency) could be cheaper than fossil fuel and nuclear electricity in 3-5 years.

Then, yesterday, First Solar said that they believed they’d be selling solar power to CA utilities at 10-12 cents per kilowatt hour in 2014.

Both of those are well ahead of the Moore’s-Law-like exponential price decrease of solar that I’ve blogged about previously.

Could they be for real?  Possibly.  If they can keep installation costs and operating costs low enough, solar cells that are in pre-production are already at the $1 / watt manufacturing price threshold that would allow cheaper-than-fossil-fuel solar energy.

When solar is truly cheaper than fossil-fuel derived electricity, we’ll hit a new tipping point in energy.  We’ll still need some coal, natural gas, or nuclear power for night time and cloudy days, but those power usage levels are lower than the peaks on sunny afternoons in summertime.  With cheap solar PV, most of the new capacity built will make more sense as solar than anything else.

And eventually, cheap solar electricity will allow us to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into liquid fuels for storage and for transportation.  (More on that another day.)

Is Moore’s Law Really a Fair Comparison for Solar?

[This is an update of a post I first wrote in March of 2011, responding to criticism of the analogy of Moore’s Law for solar power. Updating in April 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of Moore’s Law, in light of renewed conversation on this topic.

tl;dr: Moore’s Law is an analogy. As an analogy, it works. And progress is happening far faster than I projected in my ‘solar Moore’s Law’ piece of 2011.]

In March of 2011, as I was researching the book that would become The Infinite Resource, I plotted out the price of solar modules and found an exponential decline. Researching this, I found that nearly every other observer that had plotted the data had found the same. I wrote a guest blog post for Scientific American titled Smaller, Faster, Cheaper: Does Moore’s Law Apply to Solar Cells? In that post, I projected the future cost of solar power if the cost trajectory of solar modules continued, and other costs shrank in the same proportion. And crucially I found that new solar would be cheaper than new coal electricity across most of the US by 2020, and in the sunniest parts of the US by 2015 or 2016.

Paul Krugman linked to this post in his Sunday column Here Comes the Sun some months later. I wasn’t the first to observe the exponential decline in solar module costs or the first to analogize it to Moore’s Law. I just boosted signal, and getting picked up by Krugman boosted the signal even further. In retrospect, there’s much I’d change about the piece: Differentiating retail vs. wholesale prices, talking more about the need for storage, talking about whole system cost reductions, talking more about how subsidies function, talking more about peak-of-day prices vs baseload prices, and more. But overall, it stands the test of time fairly well.

Yesterday, CFR published a post titled Why Moore’s Law Doesn’t Apply to Clean TechnologiesIt’s thoughtful and nuanced. But I think I’ve already responded to most of the points in it, in this piece below.

Before returning to the original piece, I’d note that actual progress in solar power module prices has been dramatically faster than I projected.

In the 2011 piece, the graphs project that in 2015, solar modules would cost just under $2 / watt. We’d reach 50 cents per watt in module price around 2030.

We have 50 cent per watt solar module prices today. Solar module prices are 15 years ahead of where those (at the time, optimistic) projections in 2011 placed them.

Say what you will about the analogy of Solar Moore’s Law – the numerical projections of price that I presented in 2011 were too conservative. Price reduction has happened far faster than the historical norm.

 

One weakness of the original piece is the assumption that whole system cost would drop at the same pace as module price. Because modules have plunged in price so fast, whole system cost hasn’t quite kept pace (though it’s done surprisingly well, driving by market forces). Another weakness is that the price line to beat is really wholesale electricity prices, around 6-7 cents per kwh, not the 12 cents per kwh I presented in the SciAm.

Even so, the projection of grid parity in the sunniest parts of the United States by 2015 or 2016 appears to have been correct. UBS is informing clients that earlier this year, NextEra, a subsidiary of Xcel energy, submitted bids for new solar projects in New Mexico at a cost of 4.2 cents per KWh. Even after backing out the 30% solar Investment Tax Credit that may soon expire, that would be a cost of 6 cents per kwh, lower than EIA’s estimate of 6.6 cents per KWh for new natural gas. This bid has not yet hit the media. I’ll link to it when it does.

Finally, the original piece didn’t mention energy storage. Storage matters tremendously. And energy storage is also seeing an exponential decline in prices and surging demand driven by real market needs. Battery prices have been on an exponential trend of price reduction for roughly 25 years, and as a recent piece in Nature Climate Change documented, prices are now below what was projected for 2020. Here’s more on the rapid innovation in energy storage.

Now, here’s the original post from 2011, with a few small edits:

A reader at Scientific American comments on my post making an analogy of Moore’s Law to the price trend of solar power raises some healthy skepticism about whether or not the exponential trend in solar watts / dollar can continue.

This is a fine thing to be skeptical about.  As I mentioned in the original post, we shouldn’t expect exponential trends to continue for ever.  Most run up against external limitations at some point and level out or reverse.

It’s also worth noting that the solar gains are far slower than gains in computing.   Computing gains have been roughly 60% in circuit density per year, and more or less the same in the annual gain of computing per dollar.   Solar gains are much more modest, at roughly 7.5% gain per year.   While computing performance per dollar seems to double roughly every 18 months, solar power per dollar doubles every 9 years. [Update: The solar pace over the last 37 years is now 14% improvement for year, or a doubling in watts / $ every ~4 years.] Moore’s Law and the price performance improvement of solar are both exponential trends (at least so far), but they have different slopes. Moore’s Law is clearly faster.

That said, the comparison between the gains in solar watts / dollar and the Moore’s Law increase of transistors per area (or the later morphing of this to computations / dollar) is fairly apt.

In both cases, they’re driven by three factors:

1. Nearly insatiable consumer demand for more of the resource (computing and energy, respectively)

2. Industry expectations.  Any company working on a new microprocessor has to expect that their competition is going to be improving at a rate around that dictated by Moore’s Law (roughly, a doubling of transistors on the same size chip every 18 month).  That gives companies working on new microprocessors a goal post to aim for. If they don’t hit that post, they can expect to be behind their competition.  Similar factors apply in memory, in storage, and in bandwidth, each of which have their industry-noted exponential trends.The same dynamics work in solar photovoltaic power. Solar PV manufacturers have observed the same trend discussed here. As I noted in the original article, the trend is now 31 years old.  Whether or not it will continue for 31 more years, any PV manufacturer has to expect that it will continue for at least the next few. That gives PV manufacturers their own goal posts to shoot for. And the PV market is crowded.  Wikipedia lists more than 50 notable solar PV manufacturers.

UPDATE: In energy storage, where another exponential trend in price reduction exists, industry expectation is also a clear factor. Talk to any energy storage company in the world. They’re all watching this trendline and aiming to beat it.

3. Progress Made by Reducing Materials Per Output. The final factor is the one that makes the gains physically possible.   In both computing and in solar, the gains being made in performance per dollar are being made by reducing the amount of material required to achieve each unit of output.  By etching thinner lines, the semiconductor industry crams more transistors onto the same amount of silicon.  They’re using less silicon per transistor. The solar PV industry, similarly, is using less silicon per watt and less manufacturing energy per watt. Solar manufacturers are doing this by reducing the thickness of solar cells, reducing losses in manufacturing, using more efficient ovens,(slowly) increasing the efficiency of solar cells, and increasingly by looking at techniques that use materials other than silicon. For a look at how industry thinks about this, here is a graph of silicon per watt that Sun Power presented at the SEMICON West Conference in 2007. And here’s a chart of decreasing silicon wafer thicknesses out to 2012 from an article by researchers at Applied Materials Switzerland, specifically focused on reducing silicon grams / watt.

4. Update: Total Cost of Ownership Matters – If there’s one more similarity I’d add between IT and solar (and batteries), it’s this: It’s not just technology cost that matters. It’s the total cost. Corporate buyers of computers long ago realized that the purchase of a computer was only a fraction of what they paid. The majority of the cost is really in the installation, deployment, and management of those systems.

In a sense, solar is no different, and storage will eventually be no different. The cost of the technology is plunging. But the total cost of the system is now more than twice the cost of the technology. To continue the true downward trend in the cost of energy from solar (or solar + storage), the total cost, including deployment, ancillary hardware, and maintenance has to be continually brought down. Arguably, this is now more important than module costs.

The similarity of the three factors tells me that the analogy is an apt one.  That does not guarantee that it will continue forever.  We will eventually hit the limit of what can be physically done to reduce materials needed for solar cells.  But that looks likely to happen significantly after solar PV becomes less expensive than building new coal or natural gas electricity in most of the world. That is, indeed, transformative.

There’s more about the exponential pace of innovation in both storage and renewables in my book on innovating to beat climate change and resource scarcity and continue economic growth:The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet

The Exponential Gains in Solar Power per Dollar

My post on the Moore’s Law-like exponential gains in solar power per dollar went up at Scientific American yesterday.  Reprinting here with permission.

The sun strikes every square meter of our planet with more than 1,360 watts of power.  Half of that energy is absorbed by the atmosphere or reflected back into space.  700 watts of power, on average, reaches Earth’s surface.  Summed across the half of the Earth that the sun is shining on, that is 89 petawatts of power.  By comparison, all of human civilization uses around 15 terrawatts of power, or one six-thousandth as much.  In 14 and a half seconds, the sun provides as much energy to Earth as humanity uses in a day.

The numbers are staggering and surprising.  In 88 minutes, the sun provides 470 exajoules of energy, as much energy as humanity consumes in a year.  In 112 hours – less than five days – it provides 36 zettajoules of energy – as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas on this planet.

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.

It’s small wonder, then, that scientists and entrepreneurs alike are investing in solar energy technologies to capture some of the abundant power around us.  Yet solar power is still a miniscule fraction of all power generation capacity on the planet.  There is at most 30 gigawatts of solar generating capacity deployed today, or about 0.2 percent of all energy production.  Up until now, while solar energy has been abundant, the systems to capture it have been expensive and inefficient.

That is changing.  Over the last 30 years, researchers have watched as the price of capturing solar energy has dropped exponentially.  There’s now frequent talk of a “Moore’s law” in solar energy.  In computing, Moore’s law dictates that the number of components that can be placed on a chip doubles every 18 months.  More practically speaking, the amount of computing power you can buy for a dollar has roughly doubled every 18 months, for decades.  That’s the reason that the phone in your pocket has thousands of times as much memory and ten times as much processing power as a famed Cray 1 supercomputer, while weighing ounces compared to the Cray’s 10,000 lb bulk, fitting in your pocket rather than a large room, and costing tens or hundreds of dollars rather than tens of millions.

If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology, 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.

So is there such a phenomenon?  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy has watched solar photovoltaic price trends since 1980.  They’ve seen the price per Watt of solar modules (not counting installation) drop from $22 dollars in 1980 down to under $3 today.

graph1

Is this really an exponential curve?  And is it continuing to drop at the same rate, or is it leveling off in recent years?  To know if a process is exponential, we plot it on a log scale.

graph2

And indeed, it follows a nearly straight line on a log scale.  Some years the price changes more than others.  Averaged over 30 years, the trend is for an annual 7 percent reduction in the dollars per watt of solar photovoltaic cells.  While in the earlier part of this decade prices flattened for a few years, the sharp decline in 2009 made up for that and put the price reduction back on track.  Data from 2010 (not included above) shows at least a 30 percent further price reduction, putting solar prices ahead of this trend.

If we look at this another way, in terms of the amount of power we can get for $100, we see a continual rise on a log scale.

graph3

What’s driving these changes?  There are two factors.  First, solar cell manufacturers are learning – much as computer chip manufacturers keep learning – how to reduce the cost to fabricate solar.

Second, the efficiency of solar cells – the fraction of the sun’s energy that strikes them that they capture – is continually improving.  In the lab, researchers have achieved solar efficiencies of as high as 41 percent, an unheard of efficiency 30 years ago.  Inexpensive thin-film methods have achieved laboratory efficiencies as high as 20 percent, still twice as high as most of the solar systems in deployment today.

graph4

What do these trends mean for the future?  If the 7 percent decline in costs continues (and 2010 and 2011 both look likely to beat that number), then in 20 years the cost per watt of PV cells will be just over 50 cents.

graph5

Indications are that the projections above are actually too conservative.  First Solar corporation has announced internal production costs (though not consumer prices) of 75 cents per watt, and expects to hit 50 cents per watt in production cost in 2016.  If they hit their estimates, they’ll be beating the trend above by a considerable margin.

What does the continual reduction in solar price per watt mean for electricity prices and carbon emissions?  Historically, the cost of PV modules (what we’ve been using above) is about half the total installed cost of systems. The rest of the cost is installation.  Fortunately, installation costs have also dropped at a similar pace to module costs.  If we look at the price of electricity from solar systems in the U.S. and scale it for reductions in module cost, we get this:

graph6

The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now.  In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today.  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.

We should always be careful of extrapolating trends out, of course.  Natural processes have limits.  Phenomena that look exponential eventually level off or become linear at a certain point.  Yet physicists and engineers in the solar world are optimistic about their roadmaps for the coming decade.  The cheapest solar modules, not yet on the market, have manufacturing costs under $1 per watt, making them contenders – when they reach the market – for breaking the 12 cents per Kwh mark.

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.

For an update on these trends, see here.

You can also read about how battery prices are dropping exponentially too.

I write much more about solar, wind, energy storage, and why the pace of innovation in them is critical – and hopeful – for both fighting climate change and for long term economic growth in the book I originally did this research for, The Infinite Resouce: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet 

Sources and Further Reading:

Key World Energy Statistics 2010, International Energy Agency

Tracking the Sun III: The Installed Cost of Photovoltaics in the U.S. from 1998-2009, Barbose, G., N. Darghouth, R. Wiser.,  LBNL-4121E, December 2010

2008 Solar Technologies Market Report: January 2010, (2010). 131 pp. NREL Report TP-6A2-46025; DOE/GO-102010-2867

Organic Crops have Lower Yields than Conventional Crops

Plant pathologist Steve Savage has analyzed the data from the USDA’s Organic Production Survey (the largest ever survey of organic farming in the United States) and finds that organic yields per acre are substantially lower than the yields of conventional crops.

By far the biggest negative environmental impact of farming comes from deforestation to clear new land for farms.  Lower yields mean more land is necessary to produce the same amount of food, which should make organic food proponents rethink whether or not organics are good for the planet.

An excerpt from Savage’s analysis:

In the vast majority of cases national Organic average yields are moderately to substantially below those of the overall, national average.

Examples for row crops include Winter Wheat 60% of overall average, Corn 71%, Soybeans 66%, Spring Wheat 47% and Rice 59%

Examples for fruits include Grapes 51%, Apples 88%, Almonds 56%, Avocados 62%,Oranges 43%, Strawberries 58%

Examples in Vegetables include Tomatoes 63%, Potatoes 72%, Sweet Corn 79%,Celery 50% and Cabbage 43%

via A Detailed Analysis of US Organic Crops.

Singularity Summit Talk: The Digital Biome – Re-Engineering Life on Earth to Survive and Thrive in the 21st Century

This weekend I was at the Singularity Summit in San Francisco.   On Sunday I gave a talk called The Digital Biome – Re-Engineering Life on Earth to Survive and Thrive in the 21st Century.  (Follow the link to see the slides on SlideShare.)

The basic thrust of the talk is that we’re facing very real and pressing threats to the environment and human civilization – Climate Change, Peak Oil, Ocean Acidification, Species Loss, Fresh Water Depletion, etc…
…and that at the same time, the exponential progress in biology gives us the potential capability to take advantage of capabilities of nature – in some cases re-engineering nature – to overcome those problems.
It’s a fine line to walk sort of talk.  I wanted to get across to the crowd at the Singularity Summit (some of whom are tremendously more optimistic than even I am) that we have real problems.  But I also see a tremendous potential in biotechnology to address these problems, and the fundamental limits of growth on the planet are still orders of magnitude beyond where we’re at.
It seems to have gone well.  A number of people came up to tell me they really liked it, and more than one person called it the best talk of the summit.
Take a look and tell me what you think.