Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
Search I,Cringely:

The Pulpit
Pulpit Comments
October 30, 2008 -- Azure Blues
Status: [OPEN] add a comment

Moore's law won't double the amount of sunlight that hits my roof. I'll be using the utility for some time, I expect.

Windows 7 has a pretty good shot, I think. If it runs on Eee PCs today it'll run on phones tomorrow. That's why Windows Mobile has no investment. It's being replaced by a single architecture that scales.

Brock | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:19PM

"Windows 7 had darned well better hit a home run or Microsoft is in BIG trouble."

Isn't that what they said about Vista too?

LateBlt | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:19PM

C'mon Bob - since when could we run whole houses using solar power? It doesn't matter how good solar panels get, they are never going to increase the amount of energy carried by sunlight and an average house in the desert would be lucky to soak up enough rays to replace power from the grid completely.

It would be great if solar power would one day replace our need for the grid, but it's unlikely to happen unless we get a few million km closer to the sun.

Damian | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:52PM

I believe the point of the Moore's comparison is that the solar cells themselves will double in density. The amount of sun won't increase but the panel's ability to utilize that sun will double on the Moore curve. There will surely be a finite end of how dense the panels can get - especially given the heat the sun itself brings to the party.

TomH | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:53PM

"Moore's law won't double the amount of sunlight that hits my roof. I'll be using the utility for some time, I expect."

Well that misses the point big time!

"Windows 7 has a pretty good shot, I think. If it runs on Eee PCs today it'll run on phones tomorrow. That's why Windows Mobile has no investment. It's being replaced by a single architecture that scales."

So I suspect that is just as far off the mark.

MSP | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:54PM

Sorry, Bob. Moore's Law doesn't apply to solar cells. It's just that plain and simple. Etching smaller lines on a piece of silicon won't double the amount of electrical power it generates.

Go look at the historical prices for a typical 50-watt solar panel. They are roughly the same size and cost today as they were 15 years ago (about $500). If your Moore's Law assumption were true, that panel would have cost $500,000 15 years ago, which it most certainly did not.

Barney Greinke | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:54PM

what if the power companies decide to use solar to generate or at least supplement, *their* power? they can take advantage of moore's theorum too you know.

mattw | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:56PM

Yeah, sorry, but this is not correct, as Brock mentioned. Moore's law is based on shrinking sizes reducing costs, yet when you shrink solar cells, they do not get more efficient. Solar cells (and in a way, camera sensors) are based on square footage. Moore's law willstill have economic effects on the solar industry, as older equipment becomes available, and allow scale efficiencies to kick in for silicon processing.

Nick | Oct 30, 2008 | 3:57PM

If solar beccomes so cheap, why wouldn't the power companies generate their own power with it? If solar were to replace big power, it means that solar would have to generate twice as much power, with a storage device that suffers no losses to power things through the night. Night, you know, when it is dark, no sunlight, and you turn on your lights? It really means you have to generate far more than twice the 24 hour day's use, and have a storage medium that makes the Energizer Bunny look tired. Tain't gonna happen before Big Power has amortized everything. If such tech breakthroughs come about, the local power company becomes your best installer of Cringley Panels and Batteries, with their guarantee of no interruption of power that no other vendor could make.

michael | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:02PM

You're getting a lot of poorly-informed and way-behind comments here. As a worker in the solar electric field, I'm actually conflicted about recommending investment at the homeowner lever in solar because the field is advancing so fast. The comments about square footage on the rooftop ignore efficiency improvements; the comments about not being able to feed the house and car seem to reflect someone living at an unsustainable energy consumption level. I think the current house price market tells us what will happen to people who consume too much. Dispersed grid power is so efficient that the momentum is overwhelming, because losses in transmission approach 50%, so the homeowner, with the new federal subsidies (pulled, I hope, from corn and oil subsidies) will always beat the utility price. Thanks for bringing up solar electric, the real hope for the future. Gotta have a roof, might as well make it outta glass!

Ormond Otvos | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:07PM

Even if the solar cells keep dropping in price, Moore's law does not apply to the rest of the system - frames to hold the cells, perhaps some motors to rotate them towards the sun... Those are steel (or aluminum, or even wood), and they are not dropping in price.

David | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:08PM

I think the real point wasn't that the density of the cells would have a Moore's doubling-it's that the cost of manufacture will decline...which is the production-side corollary of Moore's Law.

Is it truly a halfing? Not yet-but production volumes of solar cells have not yet had the volume production levels that could really reap the benefits of the production technology gains...but the time is coming.

That, I think, is Bob's point.

Gary | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:15PM

The there are two problem nodes -- transmission efficiency and storage with minimum degradation.

Each is dependent of minimizing loss through the medium. Thus, superconductivity in transmission for the first.

But how do we get a handle on the second. Batteries as a storage device have significant limitation. BOSOOM -- beats the snot out of me.

Let's take a shot at not saving it but in using it, regenerating it, minimizing the need for storage use.

Truthful James | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:20PM

It's all well and good for the solar industry to buy up obsolete lithography equipment and the like at auction prices.

But they are still competing for raw silicon crystals with the semi-conductor industry, and price spikes in that commodity will impact them far more than the chip makers.

Consider how much raw silicon a quad-core cpu uses relative to a 2' x 3' solar panel. Intel can bite the bullet and pay top dollar without impacting their margins severely. Solar can't make that claim.

When the industry converts to thin film solar cells and abandon silicon crystals entirely, things get a lot more interesting.

Winston Smith | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:22PM

The amount of sunlight hitting our homes or our distance to the sun may not be changing much in the future, but the efficiency of the solar panels certainly will. If we're applying Moore's Law here, if the prices are halving every 18 months and the efficiency is doubling during the same period, we could see major increases in adoption rates. Even if efficiency doesn't grow that quickly, I do have high hopes for solar solutions in the not-so-far future (and I'm far from a tree hugger!).

IndyJaws | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:22PM

Personal solar might work in sunny suburbia, but that is pretty much limited to the south west US. The rest of North America will still need regular power for when the sun is unavailable. I don't think personal solar will have as much of an impact as you imply.

I live if a 30+ story condo complex there is probably only as much roof space as 2 or three normal houses. Solar might be enough to run the elevator or keep some lights on, but not much use overall.

Darryl | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:25PM

The cost of solar may be on par in 7 years. But the adoption rate will take multiple decades - even to get to 10-20% of home coverage. This will give utilities 30-50 years of elbow room. No hurries there regardless of what Moore might say.

Case in point - I attended an Oregon DOT meeting in 2006 on the gas tax problem. How to tax electric vehicles that won't be paying the gas tax. Their solution was a black box retrofit and the use of anonymous tracking. Their estimated date of 80% penetration? 25 years. So you see when government meets technology there is nothing fast about it.

Dave Cline | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:25PM

In addition to the effect of shrinking size, Moore's Law is more a consequence of the manufacturing learning curve - as more items are made (transistors, in the case of ICs), the cost per item decreases.

So a huge decrease in the price of solar panels would have to be preceded by a huge increase in the number manufactured.

In addition, if you DO THE MATH you'll see that rooftop solar power units are woefully inadequate to meet the country's power needs, meaning dedicated solar plants would be necessary. But environmentalists will oppose (are opposing right now, in fact) such plants, tying them up with lawsuits and pushing their cost into the stratosphere.

Calvin Dodge | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:28PM

Besides the sun not shining at night, what about the reduction of sunlight in wintertime, especially as one goes farther away from the equator?

Also, not everyone owns the roof over their heads. (Insert comment about ineptness of U.S. government's push for home ownership and resulting current state of mortgage market here.)

As far as plug-in hybrids go, the same advances in solar cell technology will make it more and more worthwhile to cover your car in solar cells, too. You won't get a full charge out of them, but it'll help lower the amount of power you need to take from the plug.

Considering Microsoft: Name a significant successful acquisition they've done since the dot-com era. Sadly, all they seem to do is kill good ideas by buying them out. (Though that's a significant part of their intent in buying companies, anyway.)

Also: Which iteration of Microsoft's web services ploy is Windows Azure? Was .Net and Palladium their v1.0? Since Microsoft can't seem to get things right until the third version of anything, if Azure is their web services v2.0 and they bet the company on it, it could prove to be their downfall (even though it's as unlikely as getting an oil tanker to stop on a dime).

Lun Esex | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:31PM

Your thinking is flawed on so many levels. First of all, Moore's law is not something that you can apply willy nilly to whatever your pea brain is thinking about at the time. It is specifically applied to the number of transistors inside of a CPU doubling every two years. In fact, this will no longer be possible by 2015 and has already ceased to be of any use in todays CPU chips, particularly with Nehalem and Penryn.
To apply Moore's law to solar power is absurd. This is truly an apples to doorknobs scenario and should be scrapped.

Professor | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:36PM

Unless there is some giant new development in battery technology, the whole electric car thing is just a big joke.
Battery replacement cost based on even 10K miles a year will be several thousand dollars a year.
I can't believe how many are buying into this con job.

meme | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:40PM

Unless there is some giant new development in battery technology, the whole electric car thing is just a big joke.
Battery replacement cost based on even 10K miles a year will be several thousand dollars a year.
I can't believe how many are buying into this con job.

meme | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:41PM

For those of us in places that can receive little sunshine for months on end, solar will never be enough. Plus, there is a physical limit to how much energy you can extract from sunlight. Clever technology will get you so far, but the limit is just under 100% energy conversion; good cells are at something like 30% now. Now, account for solar angle, latitude, trees blocking things, zoning restrictions on putting up giant panels... I don't see this happening most places. Arizona, perhaps.

JohnAnnArbor | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:42PM

Lack of WinMo sessions at PDC portend very little. My take is that WinMo is drastically late and there's not much to talk about.

Look at Zune's position in the market. It's 3rd. No PDC sessions on Zune [yes, it's a stretch, I know]. But MS is not throwing in the towel on Zune.

Dummy | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:43PM

The biggest drawback to more widespread use of solar technology is not the cost, imagine if the solar cells we re 25% efficient (a doubling of currently common solar cells), this would allow half the space, and half the production costs. Once we have more efficient solar cells, we will see a higher adoption rate plus an even faster drop in cost.

JLB | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:50PM

Not to mention storms. Those of us with significant weather have to factor that in to solar deployments. I'm guessing hail does really negative things to solar arrays. Insurance costs will go way up if they have to cover replacing solar arrays damaged by high wind, instead of the more-routine replacing a few shingles.

JohnAnnArbor | Oct 30, 2008 | 4:56PM

Damian, the earth gets around 1370 watts of energy per square meter from the sun. OK, this is at noon at the equator, but this is a lot of power. Most rooftop solar cells are less than 20% efficient right now.

We can already build net zero energy buildings, and higher PV efficiency will only make it easier.

Now, because of day/night, seasons, weather and large building (offices, etc (though some of these can be net zero as well)) with a smaller surface area/volume ratio, it is not possible to generate 100% of the nations electricity from the sun. But over the course of a year, a house can indeed generate as much or more energy than it uses.

Kelly | Oct 30, 2008 | 5:03PM

Damian, the earth gets around 1370 watts of energy per square meter from the sun. OK, this is at noon at the equator, but this is a lot of power. Most rooftop solar cells are less than 20% efficient right now.

We can already build net zero energy buildings, and higher PV efficiency will only make it easier.

Now, because of day/night, seasons, weather and large building (offices, etc (though some of these can be net zero as well)) with a smaller surface area/volume ratio, it is not possible to generate 100% of the nations electricity from the sun. But over the course of a year, a house can indeed generate as much or more energy than it uses.

Kelly | Oct 30, 2008 | 5:04PM

When the demand for electricity from the utilities goes down due to rooftop solar systems, what will happen to the price of electricity sold by the utlities? I think it will go UP, each kilowatt-hour will have to support more fixed cost.

jb | Oct 30, 2008 | 5:22PM

I have witnessed the price of PV cells halving over a few years. Maybe not in 18 months, but nowhere near 5 years either. In fact, that's why I've ordered some which should be installed in a few weeks. I agree, by installing PV cells you can never get to break-even at the moment. That's why OUR government is seriously subsidizing it, through every means they can, so you can get to break-even in about 8 years. MTBF is about 20 years, so you got about 12 years of pure profit. Of course, I'm starting rather small. However, never forget: the cheapest electricity is the one you don't use.

Bob | Oct 30, 2008 | 5:54PM

Domestic solar electric is an extremely capital-inefficient way to generate household power because of the fixed costs of installation, retail profit and inverters. Industrial scale thermal solar or photovoltaic delivered over the existing grid is a much cheaper option, and also allows easier integration of storage tech for after the sun goes down.

jaycee | Oct 30, 2008 | 5:55PM

Microsoft Azure is apparently for those companies happy to write their applications to an API that isn't even bound to the hardware/software they have installed on the machine and which could change at any time out of their control requiring them to re-work parts of their application.

It's for people who need enough computing power that they require a cloud/grid application, and who don't have the money to buy/rent/set-up hosted servers, even though thousands of small and large companies have made the latter option work.

It's for companies happy to write large amounts of code and host it totally on someone else's service, not knowing if that service will exist from that provider in 5 years time, and happy to just rewrite it if Microsoft's strategy changes.

It's for people happy to run their systems knowing they can never move them to another provider.

It's for people possibly writing the next facebook who are happy to route all their traffic through a well-funded competitor's facilities, and who are happy that their application might suffer unexpected glitches if Microsoft starts pushing a competitor product.

It's for people happy with Microsoft's track record of security, reliability and quality, who believe the service cannot be hacked into and have all their data deleted.

It's for people who would rather not just write their application to a more standard API, such as the Java stack, which would allow them to host it themselves, or host it on co-lo or rented servers, or rent hosting from Amazon, Sun or other providers.

It isn't for large-capitalisation enterprises who invest a lot in their systems and need to know they'll still be running in 10 years.

So who is it actually for?

jaycee | Oct 30, 2008 | 6:08PM

I worked in the solar industry for years, and watched the research closely. It has stagnated and continues to do so. New developments are being researched, but scale up poorly. Joe Plumber is buying and installing the same product sold during Jimmy Carter's administration. Moore's law just does not apply here.

cornhoolio | Oct 30, 2008 | 6:56PM

Spot on!

Exactly 100 years ago Henry Ford refined the ability to move from one place to another. He did not come from the horse and cart or early motorised cart industry - he came from left field and with an outcome based mindset created a whole new industry.

A lot of the IT business strategies today are using a "horse & cart/motorised cart" mindset - when if you stop and look from a business operators perspecive they just want a system that works from them - they are sick of the IT industry forcing them to DIY it - whether PC or cloud based.

The future is Business Services Utilities which combines the Business Information Utilities and Business Service Providers to create a unified experience and solution for the small business owner - so they get one with doing what they love.

[Apologies for the self-promotion in this bit - but it is not about us, but the life of small business operators]

I speak from experience and it works we have been quietly been doing at for the last 8 years and the response from business owners is one of astonishment - because for the first time they truely have something that can have a great impact on their business and quality of life...

mark Byers | Oct 30, 2008 | 7:00PM

Solar is a nice technology as a supplement to grid power, but it's never going to replace grid power. Most of us are accustomed to having electricity available to us 24 hours a day. Most of us are accustomed to having electricity when it's cloudy. Many of us have trees on our property. A whole lot of us don't actually own our roof space outright. The overwhelming majority of us do not live in the Southwest.

For those inclined to whine about how our present usage is "unsustainable", my response is simply that nothing is unsustainable as long as we're able to pay for it. (It's also a bit rich to hear people simultaneously cheering solar energy as the latter day savior of mankind, and bemoaning Americans' choice to live in large single-family houses -- which also have large roofs on large lots, which is the only way solar power can ever offer much leverage on household electric consumption. Where are the supposedly earth-friendly city apartment dwellers supposed to put their supposedly earth-friendly acres of solar panels, anyway?)

Yes, Moore's Law has an effect on solar cell manufacturing. But it's not the effect you seem to think, and it doesn't really have anything to do with the prospects for shutting down the utilities.

Matt | Oct 30, 2008 | 7:02PM

You don't understand the difference between base load and peaking load. Solar is fine for peak power generation, but it does nothing for base load. When the sun is down, the lights are off. Add to the intermittent nature of solar the maintenance problems and you have the picture.

Also, solar doesn't scale with Moore's law. You may be able to put 16 times as many transistors in a cell, but that does not mean 16 times as many photons will hit it. I don't recall the exact math, but it will only add a few percentage points to the efficiency.

Chalk this up with your comments on wind turbine kites in the category of Bob doesn't understand power generation and distribution issues.

Robin Holt | Oct 30, 2008 | 7:27PM

Once again, the solution to Earth's energy needs is the Nanotech Energy Initiative:

Our Energy Challenge

Richard Steven Hack | Oct 30, 2008 | 7:41PM

Humans currently use as much energy as 1/6 of all the sunlight falling on the Earth. As we bring the third world forward this is just going to increase. We can't possible cover enough of the Earth with solar panels to make a huge impact.

Bill McGonigle | Oct 30, 2008 | 7:53PM

The electric utilities are building solar power plants that have nothing to do with photovoltaic, but what if the utilities started installing panels on roof tops? APS currently offers rebates to homeowners and businesses who install PV panels. But what if they installed them, offering reduced rates or rental fees to the homeowner or business owner? Now the homeowner doesn't have the cost of installing PV units and the utility can hook the panels right into the grid.

Patrick | Oct 30, 2008 | 8:35PM

I do not agree with Mr. McGonigle's supposition that, "We can't possible cover enough of the Earth with solar panels to make a huge impact."

I live in Michigan, relevant to the discussion on solar photovoltaic (PV) in that we require a system that can generate sufficient power on the shortest (and coldest) winter days.

The average American home uses 80 to 100 KWH of electrical power per day.

Let's say that we have an average home, with a roof area (suitable for installation of PV) of about 100 square meters (~1100 square feet).

With a 20% efficient solar PV system our average home will generate 35 KWH of juice each day; about 1/3rd of the amount of electricity the average family requires on an average winter day.

BUT, not only are we seeing improvements in the cost of production of PV panels (as Bob discusses above), but we are also seeing gains in the current low efficiency of PV generation.

When (if?) PV is ~50% efficient, and is priced to compete with traditional generation sources, then even in dark and cold winter conditions most of our residential power could be largely sourced to PV.

When can PV make an impact? At some far future date? Or, can PV make an impact NOW?

Yes, it can, and does so today in Germany. Solar, wind, and other alternative electrical generation sources provide 14.2% of Germany's electrical needs. And, given that Germany is substantially farther north than most of the US, and receives about 1/3rd LESS sunlight in the winter than I get here in Michigan, it is all the more incredible that solar has had such an impact.

Solar can have an impact, it's having an impact now, and as PV efficiency and manufacturing costs improve we will see PV more and more in the next few years.

[I have no financial interest in electrical generation, other than personal use for my family. I'm not in the solar industry; I am, however, tired of seeing my money go up the smokestack. YMMV]

Michael Foerster | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:05PM

Mr. Cringely's prediction of Microsoft driving toward utility-like ubiquity is well-reasoned and convincing, IMHO.

His comparison to solar power however is off-base. That's because the balance of system costs remains expensive, often more expensive than the cost of the photovoltaic panels themselves. BoS costs include installation, energy storage, power rectification and phasing. BoS costs do not decline much or follow Moore's law because they include such a high labor component and use very old, very slowly improving technology like batteries. If a building connects to the power grid, the capital cost of the grid still has to be paid and depreciated.

As for the comment someone added asserting that "humans currently use as much energy as 1/6 of all the sunlight falling on the Earth," it's ludicrous. The sun irradiates an ever-shifting portion of the earth with about 50,000 terawatts, 24 hours a day! That's 10,000 times the world's total electricity use and more than 1000 times greater than all human power consumption.

David Salzman | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:15PM

Solar-electric does not make an impact right now for a very simple reason. The low efficiency combined with the high energy costs of PV cells means that the typical PV installation will never generate as much energy as was used to make and install it.

That's right. PV cells are currently a net energy loss. The only way they are practical at all is that in some remote places with no electric infrastructure, they are the cheapest way to get electricity, and in other places they are heavily subsidized by government.

On the other hand, efficiencies are going up, and particularly with the thin-film technology, they will soon or have already crossed the energy return on energy invested (EROI) threshhold. Even so, there's a long way from "not a net loser" to success.

Will there come a tipping point? Likely yes. But batteries are expensive and maintenance-intensive. Even at 50% PV efficiency, there will still be a need for an electric grid, if only to combine your home-generated solar electricity with relatively remote wind and nuclear power.

Danby | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:41PM

The cost per kWh or kW for PV solar absolutely does *not* follow moores law of halving every 18 months. Not even close.

PV pricing declines have followed a well established manufacturing experience curve for 30
years, dropping approximately 20% every time the cumulative volume has doubled. This assumes a rough balance of supply & demand for the raw materials (pure silicon) and the produced product (PV cells & panels)

The volume has been increasing at 40%+ per year for the last few years.

This implies roughly a 20% price drop every 2 years. Not moores law, but not too shabby nonetheless.

For more information and source for this data checkout after 39 minutes into this video presentation from the CTO of Sunpower (one of the largest PV manufacturers in the US)

Rob | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:43PM

Despite what that ass wrote in PCWorld, I have to say Windows 7 is definitely an improvement over Vista. Actually it is Vista, it's what should have been Vista. Let's take the lipstick off this porker and call it Vista SE, Okay? Is it worth migrating from XP SP3? (long pause) if you're happy with with XP, why bother but if you do it, there isn't too much headache in the transition. You'll be Ok with it in the long run, but in the long run, a desktop GUI OS will no longer matter, will it? This will probably the penultimate Windows OS folks before desktop GUIs are totally replaced by browsers.

Kevin Kunreuther | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:47PM

To the comment (by Danby?) which said that PV does not product as much energy over it's life as went into producing it, in fact it most certainly does produce more energy and much more!

the latest research I read says that crystaline Eroei (energy return on energy invested) keeps coming down & is now 1.5-3.5 years. still not as good as thin film which is 1-1.5 years. This means after the first few years of life, a PV systems generates nett surplus energy than went into making it.

Rob | Oct 30, 2008 | 10:48PM

I think it's fascinating that Microsoft is giving up on the most prevalent computing platform on the planet. Phones outnumber PCs by 10 to 1 and the gap is growing. I can't imagine Windows 7 working at all well with a handheld-size screen, not to mention my current phone's 1"x2" display, unless they totally rework the display architecture. Again.

iPhone addicts notwithstanding, the most likely future of the user interface for phones is that it will vanish into the Bluetooth earpiece and become eyes-free. Phones already have signal processors built-in to run their radios, so adding speech recognition is no burden on their hardware. But Microsoft will have an extremely hard time with eyes-free interaction, since there are no "windows" to tie any activities to. PCs aren't going away any time soon, but their days are numbered as computing becomes part of the environment rather than something that you sit in front of while ignoring the rest of the world.

Dean Loomis | Oct 30, 2008 | 11:04PM

While provocative as always, I think your assessment of the electric utilities is a bit faulty. Solar energy is a variable resource; unless houses plan to outfit themselves with energy storage systems or turn everything off at night, they'll still need to connect to the grid. The grid will have to change (google "smart grid"), but I don't think it or the utilities will go away.

Steven Peters | Oct 30, 2008 | 11:23PM

While provocative as always, I think your assessment of the electric utilities is a bit faulty. Solar energy is a variable resource; unless houses plan to outfit themselves with energy storage systems or turn everything off at night, they'll still need to connect to the grid. The grid will have to change (google "smart grid"), but I don't think it or the utilities will go away.

Steven Peters | Oct 30, 2008 | 11:24PM

Apparently you don't understand what pressure electric utilities are under to CUT customer demand because there is little short-term they can do to meet demand other than reduce demand from customers. Carbon emissions, salmon mutilation, etc., make it unfeasable. Unfortunately, the customers just keep buying more plasma TVs, incandecent bulbs, etc. They don't get it even though the utilities are telling them to STOP using so much!

If everyone generates more electricity than they can use, probably industry will want to consume it. Utilities will still be delivering power through their transmission and distribution grids. Utilities WILL survive. Their role, might just change...

Believe it or not, they are thinking about all this...

Jim | Oct 30, 2008 | 11:44PM

Am I the only one who thinks the cloud is a bad idea? I see it giving others control over currently self-sufficient IT infrastructures. The cloud imposes an additional price of admission to IT that, at the moment, doesn't exist.
Sure businesses pay to use the web, like they pay to use the telephone (which is increasingly web based) but business applications on a GUI desktop are freely available if you so desire, and the data on that spinning rust in your machine is yours, there are no additional costs are incurred to access it.

SAB | Oct 30, 2008 | 11:57PM

Microsoft Azure is not important to Microsoft. They are not turning themselves into a utility.

Bob, you don't understand Microsoft. They have 40 billion times more money than brains (at the management levels). They have a monopoly on 2 products. All they care about is protecting that monopoly. So they invest in anything and everything that poses even the remotest threat. Most of those investments flop, but some pay off handsomely. That's just good venture capitalism.

The comments on vista/win7 are correct. Competing OS's have been slowly eroding market share for 8 years. Mobile platforms are a real threat... Not for extinction -- there will always be desktops and servers, just like there are still IBM mainframes -- but for reducing the monopoly into just another bit player (pun intended).

No, you don't understand Microsoft. Within Microsoft there are mid-level managers who are making noises about the need to refocus on quality and user experience. So far, senior management is still tone deaf. Gates and Ballmer control all the shares and make all the decisions. It's their rich boy toy. They think they know everything and will never listen to mere commoners.

Mkkby | Oct 31, 2008 | 12:48AM

If we eventually reach an ideal efficiency ratio between photons hitting n^2 area of the PV cell and produces exactly the same number of free electrons then we would have achieved the impossible.

If you took note, then the only other variable for Moore's Law to shrink is the n^2 area itself. Someone mentioned 20% efficiency meaning for a given n^2 area there is only 1 freed electron for every 5 photons hitting the surface. So, how do you create more free electrons?

So, for now, I think Bob should be given credit for relating Moore's Law with PV solar cells. The n^2 area to generate the same efficiency can be shrunk by half. But every 18 months? I really doubt that. Come to think of it, Moore's Law is not really a law but an Observation of the Fact (you can quote me on that).

And as we are aware (at zenith) the sun gives us also infrared radiation we feel as heat. If PV cells combine both of those qualities to heat a home (water tank/air) and provide electricity during the day then quite possibly we will be able to shrink our utility bills drastically.

On the other hand, Dr. Gordone Moore's observation can't be applied to Microsoft's products. None of MSFT's products has doubled in performance every 18 months, nor halved its lines of codes every iteration, nor halved its price/performance ratios.

Rick Hunter | Oct 31, 2008 | 12:57AM


I also don't think much of cloud computing. Especially in a world where blade servers and hosting services are so cheap. Why compete against 2 areas that are already barely-profitable commodities?

Please see my last comment about MSFT investing just to cover every possible base, because they have so much money it doesn't matter.

Mkkby | Oct 31, 2008 | 12:58AM

Moors law predicts the cost of computing power, not the cost of the power+infrastructure. While I have a far more powerful computer than my x86, it only costs about 1/3 the price. Today, a major part of solar systems on the roof are installation costs. We will see some changes (e.g. when one roles on solar panels instead of shingles) that result from changing the installation mechanism. However, a 12kw panel array today cost about as much on the roof as a 4k panel array of 10 years ago, and a 4kw array is something one uses to power a remote water pump.

As others have noted, the utilities are both a manufacturer (power plants) and a distribution service. Solar power will affect the last mile profitability, the carbon footprint to generate a watt on sunny cool days vs. rainy nights, and our growing needs.

As to hybrids ... seems like a plug in hybrid leverages two delivery infrastructures: gas stations and power transmission.

Daemeon | Oct 31, 2008 | 1:50AM

Bob, Moore's Law is an observation that you can put twice as many transistors in a given space every 18 months. There are no transistors in a solar panel. In fact, it's strictly a function of area and efficiency, and efficiency is not a function of size. More efficient cells come from changes in the chemistry of the layers coated up on the silicon.

If we're at 20% efficiency now, the absolute limit is five times the current power per square inch. I'm not sure that the cost per square inch of silicon has improved much over the years, except the handling advantages of larger wafers; we've just gotten a whole lot more transistors, and thus logic, in each square inch.

I think you blew it this week.


G. Armour Van Horn | Oct 31, 2008 | 2:46AM

Bob, there is another way the electric utilities can keep their dominance in the market. The electric company installs the solar panels on home owners roofs in exchange for a lower tariff. This way the electric company owns the solar panels and then the home owner can't put his own solar panels on until the contract expires.

This way if the electric companies can buy solar panels in bulk reducing their overall costs vs an individual home owner. The electric companies can put restrictions on the solar panel manufactures to reduce the amount of panels sold to individual home owners and therefor increasing the price to individual home owners.

This will alleviate the carbon tax that WILL happen in the future and I doubt if any individual home owner would say NO to a lower tariff in the times of difficulty yet to come.

Ian McD | Oct 31, 2008 | 3:02AM

G. Armour Van Horn:
[QUOTE]Bob, Moore's Law is an observation that you can put twice as many transistors in a given space every 18 months.[/QUOTE]

Please refer It's not JUST about the density of transistors that can be achieved. It's ALSO about the density of transistors at which the COST PER TRANSISTOR IS LOWEST.

To add yet another analogy on top on Bob's, it's about dinosaur business models operating in the modern world - they're simply reacting in an effort to survive: they aren't capable of driving innovation pro-actively to generate new markets to guarantee their survival anymore.

G Fernandes | Oct 31, 2008 | 6:17AM

Err so it's all pure coincidence that the code base for the Windows OS, the Windows Server OS is the same? And that this code base will be used for Azure too?

And what do you think the next version of Windows mobile will be? Righto: 7. I predict a similar code base.

Microsoft has just managed to pull it all together codewise. Now they sell the same product in at least 4 different markets.

Sounds like a winner to me

Charlie Mason | Oct 31, 2008 | 8:24AM

Both are big monoploies trying to survive a disruption. Just as bit-torrent could never have been invented by Microsoft, matching the Google infrastructure is going to be very hard and is competing for the cloud, when there is aleady VMWare and Amazon.

Google says "Don't be evil", but now a days lots of their services are evil. For example: their browser, chrome does not allow full featured access to yahoo mail. And they also block listing thier competators for online apps called Zoho from thier index...this is just a tip of the iceberg :)

I guess its just time, when a smart reporter picks up the evil tactics of google, that their product managers are using to gain market share, can we blame them?? most monopolies and dictatorships are evil no matter how good their beginnings.

Praveen | Oct 31, 2008 | 9:41AM

Power companies could also partially shift their business models from utility oriented to service oriented. For example, they could sell solar cells at a discount as compared to companies like Northern Tool, install them for free, and then shift a portion of the utility bill (something people are already accustomed to paying) over to a maintenance program, so customers switching to solar don't have to worry about contracting maintenance or doing it themselves. From a business perspective, it would preserve both a revenue stream and customer relationships, and from a consumer perspective it would remove the hassles of adopting new technology without significantly changing how the budget works.

Mike | Oct 31, 2008 | 10:43AM

The assessment of electric utilities is far more than a bit faulty: pricing of solar power generation has only dropped 20% in the last 7 years ( and potential improvements out on the horizon have nothing to do with silicon technology.

Rolland | Oct 31, 2008 | 10:49AM

a few points.

There's a lot more to the cost of using solar energy in your home than just the price of the silicon. You can't install these things yourself, you have to hire a contractor, and they are not going to work for less money just because the materials are cheaper. Solar produces DC, so if you want to use your existing wiring, you have to buy a fairly expensive converter. If you want to interface to the grid, then you have to buy an even more expensive box to match the phase to the power company. None of these expenses are effected by the price of the cells themselves.

Matching the cost of generation for a watt isn't the benchmark that people use. What they want to know is how fast is it going to pay for itself. If the payback time is >5 years, it's a hard sell. So the overhead costs are much more of an issue.

How long do they last? I live in Texas where we have lots of sunshine - and the occasional hailstorm. A steel car hood can't go through one without damage; how is a solar panel going to do? It's no good if it doesn't last much longer than the payback time.

My HOA would probably raise a stink if my roofline was significantly altered or a different color. My property taxes might go up (due to "improvements") enough to make solar less appealing. And when it's time to re-shingle the roof, is the roofing company going to know how to work around the solar panels?

I'm not saying these problems don't have solutions, but they are not going to be solved just because solar cells themselves go down in price. Cutting the cost of the cells in half does not make solar home power twice as affordable.

If the power companies were smart, they'd get in on this now and help people. Subsidizing solar powered houses has got to be cheaper than building more power plants.


ckiick | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:17AM

> MAYBE Microsoft has a shot against Google, which is becoming more Microsoft-like itself by the day,

Google is becoming like MS, but I don't see why Apple isn't becoming more Microsoft-like too? With the closed nature of iPhone and Appstore? With the closed nature of iTunes and iPod? Of the whole OSX and the non-optional hardware? The only thing that makes Apple different from Microsoft strategies is that it is innovative. But Microsoft used to be more innovative too, a decade ago...

wouter | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:20AM

There's a big problem with your analysis regarding home solar: A really big chunk of the expense is batteries. Batteries are heavy, expensive, and wear out in several years. You can get a set to last 20 years, but this means you need to get a *huge* (read: expensive) over-capacity and be meticulous about maintenance.

Of course, it's only a matter of time until someone engineers a reasonable mass-production flywheel battery for home power use.

StCredZero | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:24AM

"losses in transmission approach 50%"

No, electrical grid losses in transmission & distribution are in the single-digits, and technologies such as HVDC cut those lossses further.

I love the idea of solar, but suspect you would save far more energy on a national basis by simply offering a tax credit for the cost of going with a SEER 20+ unit rather than the minimum SEER 13 unit.

Bill in NC | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:31AM

just a question. if producing electricity with FV cells could be convenient, why FV panel manufactures, who are those who can get them cheapest, dont use them to produce their own energy?

FV electricity works only because it is heavily subsidized. subsidizing it, everything will work. wood, whisky, paper, anything.

in europe, where energy is quite expensive, a KWh costs around .1 euro
the pure cost of buying and installing a large scale FV system, everything else excluded, produces 1 KWh at .2 euro.

moore law doesnt apply to FV cells, surely not to their efficiency, which is limited by laws of physics.

gianmarco | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:37AM

@ wouter:
> ...I don't see why Apple isn't becoming more Microsoft-like too? With the closed nature...
- OS makers make you work in the operating environment you choose. There is nothing 'open' or 'closed' about it.
- Your ideal 'open' platform is probably something like Amazon/Google should become - providing apps and space through a thin client available across all OS so you work in their software (as a service) rather than the traditional desktop thick apps the OS maker rather you use (Apple, MS products). But even lots of Google technology is proprietary. If Azure is aimed to make users forgo their desktop attachment and simply supply the 'power' like utility company then they may have something, but I suspect they will cling to some kind of PC OS/SW tie-in until people realize MSFT has become as complex and costly as Sun, DEC, etc. in the late 90s.
- MSFT has more in common with an evolving eco-system, becoming ever more complex and vulnerable to catastrophic failures. As a developer, to me MSFT cannot even organize their own web site to help you easily search for information to help you understand their technology, let alone use the technology efficiently. Adding more layers to their still changing .NET framework become COM/DCOM is dead to me is a nightmare. Look how long it took them to implement MVC in .NET when such design pattern has existed for 20 years. They don't love technology, they simply do what they need to do to catch up with trends. That's why they no longer innovate.

Deanston | Oct 31, 2008 | 12:12PM

I don't think Moore's law reduces the cost of processing 1m2 of silicon, does it? It just increases the computing power of that 1m2 for the same cost. Solar cells give power by area… multiplied by the efficiency, of course, but that can't double more than twice without going over 100%.

Zellyn | Oct 31, 2008 | 1:09PM

Wow. So many comments contradicting each other. I see where Bob is coming from and perhaps I can shine some light. Moore's Law specifically talks about an exponential growth of computing resources per unit of cost. For a long time this was done by adding more transistors and jacking up the central clock speed. But Gordon Moore simply noticed the most obvious example of a much more universal trend: When you build a better computer, you can use that computer to build a still better computer. It is a matter of compounding interest. This increased computing power can then be used no only in improving computers, but also in improving MRI machines, optical fibers etc. In the same way the economy follows a power law because the economy as a whole produces tools that people use to grow the economy which allows for the production of yet more tools - compound interest.

So how does this idea relate to solar cells? Well first off it is not just the solar cells, but all alternative power. They can use computers to model them and better understand the physics. They can use it to control robotic manufacturing processes. They can use it to improve inventory and shipping costs etc. Solar cells will get better, but more important is the other part of the equation in which the price will drop. Therefore they will produce more power per dollar or yen or whatever. As they get cheaper, more people will buy them, which will pump more money into the sector, which the companies will invest in computer hardware and software (that is improving exponentially) and the prices will drop and efficiency will rise.

As for installing them on your roof? Most likely a third party company will evaluate a tract of housing, will offer to install the cells and maintain them. In return they will pay you rent for the use of your roof and will provide electricity to you. It will always be cheaper for you to use the power that is on your roof, but if it is not available you will pull from the grid. If you are not using all the power that is on your roof then that power will be sold to the grid instead of you. In this way there won't have to be tons of small scale energy storage units at each house (unless you wanted them for other reasons). And as far as large scale energy storage is concerned I see much more possibility in storing the power in a flywheel, or compressed air tanks.

And a quick remark on Azure. Here is what I see happening. There is another Microsoft product called Windows Home Server. This is where your personal information will reside, right where it always was in your living room. The same could be said for companies. Cloud computing does not mean that these things are going to go away. It just means that you will be able to expand them, for a short period of time, if you so desired. It is for the companies like Blockbuster and Netflix that will store all their movies "in the cloud" rather than on server farms they had to buy. It is not about putting everlast bit of information into the cloud. It is about having the ability to dynamically respond to whatever you or your company needs. And if you have more means than needs you can sell your extra processor cycles or hard drive space to the cloud in return for its use when you need it later.

Mobile applications will make especial use of the cloud so they can stay as small and low power as possible. Thus the end of Windows Mobile - who wants to store everything on your phone when you can store it all on your home server and then just access it over a wifi connection? I could pull up SolidWorks on my phone if I wanted at that point.

Sorry for the long post. Just needed to get that off my chest.

Michael A. | Oct 31, 2008 | 1:18PM

[cc'ing here in the comments, in case anyone else as the answer to this question.]

Hi Bob-

Do you know anything about very large (e.g. 6 foot diameter) transistors suitable for use with power transmission systems?

The idea is that using switching tech would be more efficient and more reliable than transformers. It was supposed to revolutionize our power grid. Whenever I read "smart grid", I hope that this is what they're talking about. (No joy so far.)

(I thought) I read about this tech in Scientific American when I was a kid. Alas, I couldn't find that issue during my visit to the engineering library's archives. I've searched and searched, but haven't found another reference.

(I actually don't know anything about electricity, electronics, or power transmission. It just seemed like an obviously good idea.)

All the best.

Cheers, Jason

zappini | Oct 31, 2008 | 1:20PM

Just how does having electric cars save "billions of barrels of oil"? The electricity has to be generated to power up all those cars. Even if you claim that big power plants are much more efficient than the internal combustion engines in all those cars, the transmission line losses take all that back down again.

And the same for carbon. Unless you're generating your power with nuclear (solar and wind won't be enough for millions of Chevy Volts) you're just emitting the carbon in a different location.

In short: IT'S ALL A FRAUD to claim that electric cars are going to suddenly save the environment. And brought to you by the same fraudsters who claim that humans are 100% responsible for climate change.

David B. | Oct 31, 2008 | 1:34PM

Funny thing about Windows Vista-- in order to use Windows XP any more, you still buy a Vista license & then pay an up-charge to use old Windows XP. Basically, because Vista is such a dog, Microsoft gets to sell 2x the licenses. That's a business failure??

Grunchy | Oct 31, 2008 | 3:02PM

As someone else pointed out already the cost decreases are not on an 18 month cycle see:

From the graph above the DOE predicts that solar energy will be at roughly 10 cents per kWh around 2020. That is still higher then most of the coal plants and hydro. So your time frame is pretty far off the mark. Additionally you have to generate at least twice the peak power (in the winter northern hemisphere it might be more) to power a house with some sort of storage. That means that the cost of solar to be truly competitive needs to be half of the existing techs. Now add electric cars into the mix and the demand will continue to go up. While I can envision a world where there are no bulk generating plants and everyone is just hooked up to a world wide grid (the sun doesn't set on earth), I don't see it happening any sooner then 50 years from now.

BR | Oct 31, 2008 | 3:26PM

Solar hasn't paid off yet, and we were, until a short time ago, far past the point where solar should have been competitive with oil and natural gas as an energy source for generating electricity. Also, the problem with hybrid cars is their batteries. If the costs of the battery packs are taken into account, hybrids will not be competitive with gasoline or diesel powered vehicles unless NiMH or Lithium power packs come down by an order of magnitude. I might pay $1000 to replace a power pack for my EV or hybrid, but not $10K. Batteries are used for solar homes as well and they have to be replaced from time to time. Eventually, you may be right and solar will become ubiquitous, but batteries and solar arrays will have to become cheaper in the next five to ten years or so, for that to happen.

John Moore | Oct 31, 2008 | 4:02PM

Seems like a "Cringely kludge" of unrelated topics.


watts/m3/day aren't going up. So, even though PV efficiencies might rise, they can't rise above 100%. Cost of PV may drop dramatically, but because watts/m3/day is relatively constant, that only means the PV itself becomes less and less of the cost of building the collector and some sort of storage.

Also, utilities generate electricity. They don't care how. If solar becomes competitive, they will sell you electricity generated by solar. I don't see the impetus to shift from purchasing to self generation.

Electric cars aren't an electric company plot. They are a Cringely confusion factor. If it is economically competitive to generate the power you need for your house, why wouldn't it be economic competitive for you to generate the electricity you need for your car too? No one limits your collector to your roof size.


The cloud still seems a little etherial to me. I have dabbled with Google Docs and Windows Live. I think Microsoft can play in this space about as well as anyone else. I don't see that they are predestined to win or lose based upon their current product set or strategic orientation. Google is a strong competitor, but the outcome is unclear.

Google word processing and spreadsheets are no functional match for the power of Office. Yes, you can store your data in the cloud, but the dirty little secret is that it helps to have a rich fat client. The richer the client becomes, the more like office apps the clients will be.

Sid | Oct 31, 2008 | 4:18PM

I think RC has a lot right here. To the nayslayers, some facts:

To BR: 2020? Check the cost of residential (yes, Rob was talking only of residential application) electricity? Here in TX, we pay over 13 cents/kwh now. Imagine what it'll be (without PV and other techs) seven years from now?

To Sid on Solar: Again, Rob was talking about the capability to invest in one's own personal PV as a replacement for ANY relationship with electric companies – at ANY price. Why would we consider the company price at all when our own plant (after investment) delivers it for free? What price competes with free?

On electric vehicles: Transporting one's own fat ass from point A to B does take a fair amount of energy. When one insists on doing it seated in a climate-controlled armchair, wrapped in 3500 lbs. of steel, and at over 60 miles an hour, the energy consumed skyrockets to ridiculous levels. When (if) we can all get past this unattainable societal farce, EVs can be adequately recharged from home PV/Wind systems.

Johnnydfred | Oct 31, 2008 | 5:07PM

Sid -

While I think you have some interesting points, there are counter-arguments to them:


Watts/m3/day are going up, just not by Moore factors. Moreover, if PV comes down far enough, we'll see most buildings deploying solar cells on their roofs. I agree that this won't eliminate electrical utilities (unless and until we develop some significantly better form of electrical storage than our current batteries), but will most certainly bring about big changes, changes that said utilities probably view with trepidation.

Cringley didn't say that electric cars are a an electric company plot (although the implication was certainly there), he stated that electric companies are in high favor of them because said companies believe that they will postpone the above mentioned changes.


The announcement of Azure and the advent of cloud computing are significant to Microsoft, not just because of the big changes it will bring, but because of cost. The current price of cloud computing apps is zero, or nearly so. As cloud computing apps get better and better, they represent a direct threat to one of MS's cash cows: Microsoft Office. I find it astonishing (and yet inevitable) that, last I heard, MS was talking about offering use of its lightweight Office apps in Azure for free.

Free? Microsoft? Not unless it has no other choice. Google has left them no other choice.

Ed | Oct 31, 2008 | 5:17PM

"The solar power satellite program received very positive reviews when it was first introduced, but implementation threatened the profits of the established energy industry. The nuclear fusion advocates aggressivly and successfully lobbied to stop any further solar power satellite energy research."

From Sun Power. The Global Solution for the coming Energy Crisis by Ralph Nansen, copyright 1995 ISBN number 0-9647021-1-8 Page 64.

Then on page 109. "...the solar power satellite is in the sunlight 99 percent of the time, which is five times more sunlight than is available at the best location on the earth."

On page 110. "If we use the cost estimates established from the preliminary designs developed by the NASA design contractors in the late 1970s then the cost of power would be less than the cost of electricty generated by coal, oil or nuclear power."

From page 164

"The savings in energy cost from one solar power satellite over a 40-year period would be more than 300 billion, if we had only 3% inflation. If we expand that to represent one half of the current US electrical generating capacity, the potential savings becomes about 22 trillion in a 40-year span with a total investment of 2 trillion. After 40 years, the savings would grow even larger each year"

Sam Rogers | Oct 31, 2008 | 6:23PM

Sorry Bob, but you have really blown it with this article. Moore's "Law" does not apply at all to photocells.

The doubling of transistors on a chip every "18 months" is almost completely due to improvements in the photolithography allowing the reduction of minimum feature size (the smallest "line" which can be printed). This means you can put more transistors in a given area. Because the cost of processing the wafer remains constant, the cost/chip goes down with the square of the feature size (reducing the feature size by 30% doubles the number of chips/wafer and halves the cost/chip).

The power output of a photocell is determined by its total area. There is no improvement as feature size decreases because there are no features (except the top level metalization which is limited by current handling ability, not feature size).

Furthermore the efficiency of a photocell will never approach 100% (a more reasonable maximum is ~25%) because most of the energy spectrum in sunlight does not have enough energy to generate electron-hole pairs across the semiconductor bandgap.

In fact, the efficiency of a photocell is quite unimportant...if you have a lower efficiency it just means you need more area. What is important is the cost/ MAY be able to achieve a lower cost/watt by using a cheaper technology (such as amorphous silicon) which unfortunately has a lower efficiency because of the much higher defect density leading to a much higher recombination rate.

Your espousing of this Moore's "Law" improvement in the cost of PV is unfortunately not uncommon amongst the great unwashed greenies. It is, however, totally wrong.

Note: I have made quite a few simplifying assumptions which don't really change the argument, relaxing them just makes it more complex...for instance, I have assumed a constant technology: single-layer crystalline silicon. One could use a multiple-junction technology to increase the fraction of the sun's spectrum that is converted to increase the efficiency...but at significantly increased cost-to-manufacture...probably not decreasing the cost/watt. Or one could use a more exotic material with a lower bandgap which would also increase the efficiency...but at very much more cost. Silicon processes are well developed and cheap(if feature size is unimportant)...other materials are definitely not.

Ted | Oct 31, 2008 | 7:12PM

Solar cells may be effective for homes and electric cars. Industry will grow, power needs will grow. Utilities have nothing to fear.

Cars will move to electric for more realistic reasons than a "utilities plot" - more likely cost of fuel and control of point source pollutions will be the imperatives.

Concern for Microsoft's technology or direction problems is looking at the symptom rather than the root of the problem. Look at their own corporate structure and internal idiocy. Orange badges should be concerned, but it's the blue badges who should be weeded out.
I have absolutely no affiliation or involvement with MS.

Cueball | Oct 31, 2008 | 11:32PM


I disagree - the efficiency is important because most people have limited areas that could be used to mount solar cells. Also, even if you do have enough area to mount lower efficiency cells, the lower cost is partially offset by higher installation costs (assuming installation cost is a function of the total area installed),

steve | Nov 01, 2008 | 12:01AM

Bob, assuming that Moores law will apply to the solar industry simply through advances in silicon is a bit simplistic. However, the general principal: knowledge is increasing while costs decrease, is definitely a factor in the solar industry and the alternative energy field in general.

Access to second hand fabs will help to cut the cost of making silicon solar cells. At the same time, a larger factor is the coming end of the dearth of silicon. For several years, the silicon solar cell industry has been held back by being out-bid for rare silicon. But this year, the supply of silicon is rising by about 50% as new foundries come on line. While there is not enough new silicon to cause the cost of semiconductors to go down, the solar cell industry will see its cost of ram materials plummet as the new foundries ramp up their production.

It is important to know that the cost of a solar system for your house is constrained by access to two other elements. The first is copper. You need copper for the wiring and for the transformers to adapt the DC voltage out of the solar panels to the AC required by your house. And a complete solar system requires battery storage to eliminate the grid. The only practical storage for small scale systems is lead/acid batteries. Fortunately, a lead/acid battery is about 95% recyclable. Only the case can not be recycled. However, the cost of a ton of lead has gone from about $400/ton a couple of years ago to almost $2000 in September of this year down from $2200 in May.

Many people opt to skip the batteries and connect their systems directly to the grid (grid inter-tie). This means that when the power goes out, their own system will have to supply their needs. A well designed system will leave the lights and fridge on - as long as the sun shines.

The benefit to the the consumer is their power meter spins backwards as long as the sun shines. The benefit to the utility is it gets to decentralize their power production AND pay the deferred cost of production *without* the capital expenditure of building their own generating plant.

The utility will be in the position of moving all of the power generated from all of its sources, central and diffuse, to where it is needed. They get to slow or stop the dams, the coal fired plants, the nuclear stations etc, while the sun is shining and keep the reserve for at night. Some utilities are drawing up plans to pump the water back up the dam during the day so they can use it again the next night.

Having everyone put a solar system on the roof and buying a hybrid will work. Especially if we have a strong grid to move the power around for us.

Leo Young | Nov 01, 2008 | 2:36AM

Seriously, Bob. Some of your material is getting a bit looney. We had the miracle fuel a few months ago, and now this stuff about Moore's Law applying to photovoltaic cells (which it surely doesn't). This would be revolutionary stuff if any of it was true. The IEEE link clearly shows that even mentioning Moore's Law in the context of solar power is dead wrong.

You could have written something interesting about economies of scale in the solar industry, which is all very true and interesting.

Please Bob, stay on planet sanity.

Damien | Nov 01, 2008 | 6:40AM

It's wrong to try to predict the cost of solar power by looking at its current cost and extrapolating from that into the future, because at the moment the price of solar panels is distorted by the recent increase in demand for them due to the high cost of oil and concern about global warning.

In other words it has become a victim of its own success because supply cannot keep up with demand. This is certain to change in a few years after production can be scaled up and new technologies are developed.

Brendan | Nov 01, 2008 | 7:24AM

Almost all grid-intertie solar does NOT operate when the grid fails (or goes under/overvolt).

That is a safety feature to ensure your system does not energize the grid and fry a lineman.

It is also the biggest disadvantage to grid-intertie systems - after a hurricane or earthquake you can't use any of that (very expensive) solar power until the local grid comes back up.

Bill in NC | Nov 01, 2008 | 10:37AM

Electric utilities are in the business of making money. If large numbers of people switch to a solar system connected to the grid, the utilities will raise the fixed fee you pay every month. I don't think a person with a solar power generator will ever get a check from the utility.

I like buying things like power, water and sewer from a utility at a fair price. I would like to buy computing power from Microsoft or Google. I would like to buy hot water for heating and cold water for cooling from a utility like they do in downtown St Paul. I could then get rid of my furnace and electric air conditioner.

There is so much more to a photovoltaic power system than the panels. I would rather be hooked up to the grid for reliable power. I would go for a deal where the power company pays for, installs and maintains the solar array on my house and I don't have to think about it.

I just toured the new power plant in St Paul. It is a gas turbine combined cycle plant that cranks out 550 Meg. They also have a solar array for demonstration purposes. Three panels, enough for three energy efficient homes when the sun is shining. Total cost of panels and the equipment to handle the DC power $250,000. Even with Moores law it will be a while and I will still be responsible for the darn thing.

Check out the web site for the Xcel solar panels.

Bill | Nov 01, 2008 | 11:03AM

Moore importantly: The silicon wafer is getting cheaper??????

I doubt. Die shrinks allow more transistors on less real estate. I think you may have goofed on this one. Correct me if I am wrong.

Freemon Sandlewould | Nov 01, 2008 | 2:32PM

Well, won't Moore's "Law" (or a version of it) be applicable to the power generated by utilities as well? The whole argument here presumes that the traditional power will continue to cost the same, while only the solar one drops. How about advances in Transmission (lesser line losses) for one?

Passerby | Nov 01, 2008 | 4:10PM

Solar cells will be economically viable in seven years where? in the southwest or in the northeast?

the substitution of solar cells for the grid requires another component to economically viable -- that is the storage battery. otherwise I won't be able to light my house when its dark. My expectation is that it will be a lot longer than seven years before there will be any appreciable shift in how we consume energy, especially here in the northeast, where it's cloudy much of the time and where its still much more economical to heat by fossil fuels than with electricity anyhow.

mac84 | Nov 01, 2008 | 5:55PM

The power company where I live (disclaimer: my wife works for them) responded to deregulation (a.k.a. "consumer choice," in which customers can pick the energy supplier) by splitting the companies into silos. The response also neatly prepared them for this future Bob describes.
One part generates power. This industry is threatened by solar cells, but it will never quite die: there will always be places where more power is consumed than can be generated by available solar energy. Someday we will stop adding new power plants to the grid, but this is a good thing for the environment anyway.
Two other parts distribute power. There are two components to this, micro and macro: the micro builds and maintains the local grid that connects each individual customer (and future generator), and the macro part moves big wattage across the regional and national grid. These corporate entities will still exist, and flourish, even when most houses generate more solar energy than they need.
Here's the point: a solar-powered house, at noon on a sunny day, will produce a surplus of energy. This energy can be stored at the house, but the batteries will cost money... and will soon reach maximum capacity. The optimum capacity would be enough to charge both cars, run the house all night, and provide a safety margin to cover a few days of clouds & rain; cheaper houses and retrofits, however, will often lack this much storage and will be forced to buy power from the local grid for at least part of the day. Whenever the local storage is full, the best thing to do with the continuing surplus will be to pipe it out onto the local grid for use elsewhere. This is where the power company remains a player.
"Power Delivery" is the name of our local company's delivery arm, and it is perfectly positioned to handle homemade power. Each home & business will remain connected to its grid, and will pay it to deliver power and take it away: even though the consumption meter might spin in both directions for a lower net bill, power delivery will charge for moving those electrons in both directions.
The generation part of the company -- at risk in the future Bob aptly describes -- will adapt by becoming a generation and storage business. It will enable the utility to sell power from an infinite variety of sources: the coal plant, the high-demand gas turbines that shut down except when needed, and the excess power produced on hot July afternoons. They will buy surplus power from the homeowners, generate more, and resell it to high-demand customers and regions suffering net shortages of power -- and their delivery arm will charge everyone involved for "shipping & handling."

Bob | Nov 01, 2008 | 6:28PM

Solar cells may be viable quite a bit before seven years. Nanosolar has a new process to produce high grade cells that are printed on flexible foil. No high temperature vacuum deposition required at all. They are building a humogous plant in California, and they are already talking about a 90% reduction in the cost of the panels.

Geoff Swenson | Nov 03, 2008 | 10:37AM

Solar in less than 10 years? Sign me up!

No, I'm not being facetious, but I would simply love to tell my local electricity provider to take their energy supplies and hit the road. Right up with the cable company, the gas and electric company is what drives most people nuts. Competition has produced little dent in that overall lack of customer service (or quality of service), and while I've gone to satellite to replace cable, I can't simply drop $40-50k on my house to go solar. However, if Moore's Law pans out not only could we go off the grid, but think of the impact in the Third World: power provided by relatively inexpensive solar stations will enable broad swaths of the Third World to suddenly join the information age.

Big Mike | Nov 03, 2008 | 4:04PM

I am certain Washington will do something to screw this up. Since dregulation in Texas a few years ago. I am paying almost twice as much as many of my friends in other states. So forgive me for being cynical, but the two-way fees, mentioned by Bob, may be the least of our costs once The Government gets involved to "help and protect" us all.

Dan Brantley | Nov 03, 2008 | 4:29PM

One fallacy with the argument that Moore's Law will soon make solar power cheaper than the utility company is that much of the cost of a solar installation goes into stuff not covered by Moore's Law: inverters, charge controllers, batteries, electrician labor, etc. Solar power enthusiasts have been proclaiming the imminent arrival of $1/watt PV since 1978. We're still waiting and that's given that the 1978 $1 is now $4.

John Reece | Nov 03, 2008 | 4:35PM

does this mean that prisoners won't have to bust big rocks (mostly silicon) in to smaller ones, that the process will happen faster than erosion?

cowhide | Nov 03, 2008 | 4:53PM

The power companies have a bigger problem than Moore’s law reducing the cost of solar cells. The utility of PVs will be multiplied by any coming breakthroughs in energy storage. All those plug-in hybrids are going to create a lucrative market that will pay for improvements in duty cycle, charge time, and amount of energy stored. That will make your PV investment useful at night and for charging up your electric car.

Charles Calthrop | Nov 03, 2008 | 8:02PM

What's important is Metcalf's Law: the value of a node on a network increases with the number of nodes: We just need to throw out all utility-imposed restrictions on sale of electricity. We need true utility deregulation (separation of grid providers and power providers) and "decoupling" of grid provider profits from amount of power sold. We need a Smart Grid that enables fair selling of any amount of electricity in an open real-time market. Like automobiles, electric appliances, computers, and cell phones, the Clean Energy Revolution is about widespread ownership of affordable, high tech devices that use a shared—and mostly fair and open—network infrastructure to increase opportunities for individuals, governments and businesses. The old "only corporations need apply" model is obsolete in a digital world.

Lance McKee | Nov 04, 2008 | 12:10PM

Mr. Cringely,

I have been a loyal reader of your column for a couple of years now. One reason for this is the possiblity of learning what might happen before it is prepackaged and sold to the public on the evening news.

This is a response to your Azure blues column. I do not know if Moore’s law will help reduce the cost or improve the performance of solar cells. Has the cost of solar cells dropped by half every 18 months, or has solar cell performance doubled in the same time frame. Moore’s law seems to apply to how many transistors can be placed on chip, and how many of those chips work. It is my personnel hope that Moore’s law does apply to solar cells. Photovoltaic solar cells are the last thing that we have not won the battle for abundance for. I believe that it will be web printing technology that ultimately brings the cost of solar cells down.

A second reason why the electric companies would like to encourage the use of plug-in electric cars would be to balance power use and generation. Most of the battery charging would occur at night. Coal fired power plants have to keep running at a night even though demand is low. It takes a long time to heat and cool the boilers and spin the turbines up and down.

Wide spread use of solar photovoltaic’s would also help balance the power demand / supply load by providing electricity when demand is highest ( during daylight hours and heat waves).

Please with hold my name.

Thank you,

Gregory J. Stevens P.E.

Greg Stevens | Nov 04, 2008 | 9:11PM

Yeah, I love my electric car and solar array. My commute is only 50 miles, and so I have to push the car the last 5 or so, but then when I get home I just plug it in to my solar array and let it charge up for Free! Well, I could if the company would let me work the graveyard shift, but they insist that there's something called synergy that we get by having everyone working at the same time. So, we trade off synergy, (and what's the market price for that, eh?) for energy, which we all know is really valuable. Now that the sun in down by 5 pm, and not yet up when I leave for the office, I'm not so sure I'm getting the best of the power company.

More importantly, the scheduled addition of some 4000 megawatts of wind generation next year here in the pacific northwest is going to lead to interesting disruptions. Anytime wind power exceeds about 15% of the average utility load, it occasionally ends up producing too much for the system to absorb. Either energy storage or a massively beefed up transmission system that can 10 of thousands of megawatts across large distances will be necessary to efficiently utilized wind power. Unfortunately, it will take about 10 years permit and construct the only practical large scale energy storage, which is hydroelectric pumped storage. I find the concept of cheap solar power coming on line in addition to all the new wind power fascinating. Night time power, now cheapest, could become the most expensive.
Thanks for another interesting perspective.

Hydro Bill | Nov 05, 2008 | 10:57PM

Since there are states which provision that people that produce more energy than they use receive compensation from the utility company, how will the utility companies react when, say, a third of their customers start receiving monthly revenue from cost effective solar power? It makes you wonder if the utility companies will invite their new 'employees' to the annual company picnic.

J. Michael F. | Nov 05, 2008 | 11:40PM

Is it possible that the bittorrent software Azureus, changed it's name to Vuze, because of 'He who must be obeyed'? Can you imagine the Google issues, when people turn up a bittorent site? I guess using an 'A' helps Google ranking, it will be interesting to see how it balances out. Hmmmm...... something to think about. Wishing you well RC.

Paul R | Nov 06, 2008 | 1:11AM

Moore's law doesn't apply in this case, because Moore's law is about increasing the density of electronics on a chip. The decreases in solar energy prices are due to more efficient manufacturing, and some improvement in energy conversion efficiency. Improvements in energy conversion efficiency are slow, because we are already near the theoretical limit for silicon (I recall the limit is on the order of 29% for single-layer cells, but I may be off by a few percent.)

Dan B | Nov 06, 2008 | 7:53PM

The end of 2008 is drawing nigh. Where is NerdTV Season 2?

Jerry | Nov 07, 2008 | 11:00AM

NerdTV Season 2 is an entire limb sacrificed to keep the internal organs working.

Randall Newton | Nov 07, 2008 | 12:44PM

"Where's my flying car?'

Jon | Nov 07, 2008 | 7:39PM

One problem with the scenario of solar power undermining the utilities due to Moore's law is that much of the cost of a home system is in stuff NOT subject to Moore's law. You've got installation labor, batteries, eventual battery replacement, and what I call 'the gray boxes' -- old school electical stuff like inverters, charge controllers, etc.

John Reece | Nov 08, 2008 | 9:11PM

I think you have "crystalline" and "amorphous" silicon references reversed. Chips need crystalline silicon, and some solar cells can use amorphous silicon (properties of glass). But I appreciate the trust you have in us for acting as your proofreaders.

Damn I'm going to miss your columns though.

Nefarious Wheel | Nov 19, 2008 | 12:03AM

Electric cars make sense because electric batteries are 90% efficient and electric motors are 90% efficient. Internal combustion engines are only 20-25% efficient and waste most of the fuel energy as heat.

Electricity costs much less than gas, the Tesla roadster can go 200 miles on $4 worth of electricity. You would have a hard time doing this in any other vehicle(let alone a sports car) even at today's gas prices.

The distribution system for electricity is already in place and is much less wasteful than the system currently in place to transport, refine, and deliver petroleum for transportation.

Electricity can be made from renewable domestic sources.

You want smaller & lighter cars and electrics will force this movement in industry because it will be cheaper to shave pounds than to increase the size of the battery pack and car companies will compete based on top speed and range.

The problem with solar(that you conveniently ignore) is that the sun doesn't always shine. The wind doesn't always blow, nobody is going to want to have a huge bank of batteries in their basement so the electric utilities will still be gainfully employed shifting loads from one part of the country to another. They may need more high powered transmission lines, but they will need fewer fossil fuel powered plants. Utilities will no longer need to pay for the raw materials to produce the product they provide and will be insulated from fluctuations in commodity markets.

Electric cars will sell themselves, electric companies have a bright future, oil companies are the dinosaurs.

paulwesterberg | Nov 28, 2008 | 5:10PM

add a comment



url (optional):

Comment (br and p tags are not necessary for line breaks)