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 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Moore’s Law for Renewable Energy

The industry is still waiting for its Gordon Moore: someone with the credibility and insight to establish viable expectations about energy sourcing and usage that will drive investment and foster innovation. One could imagine proposing, for example, a 4/7 Rule: Between 2010 and 2050, the share of global energy supplied by solar technologies will double every four years and the share supplied by wind technologies will double every seven years. That would be consistent with the historical record. During the 30 years from 1979 to 2009, according to Cleantech Blog writer John Addison, solar power capacity worldwide grew at an annual rate of 33 percent, and it is forecast to exceed 40 percent growth by 2020. Wind energy capacity grew between 25 and 40 percent annually between 2000 and 2010, according to wind energy research group BTM Consult. In both technologies, costs have consistently dropped 20 percent with every doubling of deployed capacity. If such cost curves could prove reliable, then one would expect to see solar and wind power costs by 2050 drop to about one-tenth the current rates, and wind power costs to about one-fifth, without reliance on government subsidies.

This growth, of course, will not be easy. Both solar and wind are very land-intensive technologies with their own environmental footprints. Their growth is not sustainable unless the infrastructure is developed to support them, such as the capabilities to feed locally generated power into the grid seamlessly or to improve energy storage technologies. If transformational change does come to the energy sector, it will not happen in a vacuum. Consistent and thoughtful public policies on energy and carbon could foster the constancy of purpose required for the transformation away from a fossil fuel–based economy. Yet even with minimal regulations against carbon emissions, and the current low baseload capacity of solar and wind, renewables may well have the most potential among energy technologies for rapid growth and innovation.

Like Moore’s original law, a 4/7 Rule for energy might need adjusting over time as new knowledge emerges, but the overall aim will remain unchanged: creating a clean, affordable, and secure energy future with huge growth opportunities, in which continuous innovation supplants oil price fluctuations or the reserve replacement ratio as the source of urgency for the industry. A rule like this, as Gordon Moore showed, can be both an indicator and instigator of breakthrough innovation — just the sort that is needed for energy over the next 40 years.

Reprint No. 00087

Author Profile:

  • Andrew J. McKeon is the founder and principal of BusinessClimate, a consulting firm specializing in business strategies involving climate change and sustainability, and the founder of the annual BusinessClimate conference.
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