Energy technologies and the Silicon Valley mindset

Horace Dediu identified the twin personalities of Google – Google A solves problems of humanity and Google B solves problems for advertisers. Google A is known for their moonshot programs and optimism, Google B pays the bills. So it was with interest when Ross Koningstein and David Fork announced the termination of Google’s RE<C program in 2011. Google’s aspirational goal was to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and do it in ‘years’, not decades.

Although Google had the best of intentions, the RE<C program represented the underlying problem of applying a Silicon Valley mindset to the energy and climate problem. Carey King summed it up neatly, noting that Google brings a mindset that is “used to solving some technological problem quickly, selling the company or idea to a larger company, and then moving on to the next great app.” To be sure, technology is going to help, but the dilemma is that energy and climate are not fundamentally ‘technological problems to be solved’. 

Why have renewables, particularly solar PV, become so connected with the Silicon Valley mindset? As a starting point, both share the element silicon and have parallel developments. 

Connecting ICT with solar PV
ICT Solar PV
Silicon Silicon transistors Crystalline silicon PV wafers
Miniaturization Greater transistor density Thinner silicon wafers
Performance Faster clock speed Higher efficiency
ICT Online media, shopping, banking, Uber Smart grids, vehicle-to-grid integration (V2G)
Moore’s law Doubling of performance every 2 years Declining cost of solar systems

But the question is – how close is the analogy really? In a recent paper, I explored the role of ICT, energy and resource decoupling, and concluded that –

The deepening of the service economy towards the Infotronics phase should be seen partly as a consequence of sufficient energy supply and productive primary and secondary sectors. ICT is enabling productivity gains and new business models, but does not significantly weaken the demand for energy services, and therefore does not enable strong decoupling.

In other words, it has been the high productivity of the primary and energy sectors that has enabled the advanced economies to progress towards an ICT-based service economy – not the other way around. ICT has not meaningfully diminished energy or material consumption when measured at a global scale. Energy and material use is a function of human wants, needs and income – this includes buildings, transport, food, health care etc. The relative composition of economies and ICT does not fundamentally alter the  demand for for these services.

Intel_Core_i7_right_side

The relevance of this is that ICT is operating in the information paradigm. The paradigm is governed by a different set of principles. Change a few lines of code and immediately improve an app. But trying to get a race car get around a track a couple of seconds quicker might require millions of dollars of investment. Energy supply technologies are governed by the familiar physical laws we are used to. No amount of ICT can improve the performance of a solar panel at night time.

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