Green Technology: It’s the S-Curve, Stupid
When I were a lad in the late 1970s, I dreamed of having my own computer. In my room. I would lie awake at night making mental lists of all the things I would get it to do – like getting a map of the area and plot all my friends houses on it, all our dens and all our secret routes – you can tell I was never one of the cool kids. Then, sometime in 1982 I got my hands on a BBC Micro. Hands shaking, I typed “Hello” and hit Enter. “Syntax Error” was the stark monochrome response. What a load of rubbish, I thought (I did grow to love my Beeb, however.)
30 years later, I have beside me a little black rectangle of glass with an apple on the back that will do pretty much anything the 10 year old me could have dreamed of and much, much more. And guess what, it costs less than that BBC computer cost all that time ago, when a packet of crisps was less than 10 pence.
Technology evolves. Sometimes slowly, sometimes incredibly rapidly, but the first version of anything – computers, cameras, cars, aircraft, whatever – is always a bit rubbish. But you need to get it past the rubbish stage and into a reasonable functional form before market forces will start driving break-through innovations and costs start plummeting. This is well known, universally accepted and is usually represented as a series of S-curves of maturing versions of any technology. Every time one technology matures, someone will be working on the version that supersedes it – but the rubbish stage (pre yellow burst) is soon left far behind.
Given this understanding, it really annoys me when a report comes out of some ‘free-market’ think tank which claims that renewables will always be too expensive, will never deliver energy security and/or will require fossil fuel back-up (which they often bizarrely assume will have to run full time.) By the way, I put ‘free market’ in inverted commas as the authors inevitably ignore how markets work and assume technologies will not evolve, their costs will stay constant, and synergetic developments will not take place. They are the equivalent of the Cambridge professor who in 1951 declared no one would ever need a computer of their own, or be able to afford one.
Recent history shows us how short-sighted these analyses are – the whole furore over the cut to UK solar feed-in tariffs was triggered by increased demand leading to plummeting panel costs which in turn boosted demand – the natural market cycle. Now the first iteration of silicon based panels is maturing, the next generation of dye-based technology – which is twice as efficient – is starting to emerge. When that hits the maturity level, we’ll see a lot, lot more and cheaper solar power which will in turn drive the next generation.
Synergy is another factor in those S-curves. To exist, my iPhone has required a huge number of innovations in processor size, power and cost, mobile communication technology and the modern internet to name but three things that weren’t freely available back in the days of my BBC Micro. When you start to put together very efficient solar panels and innovations like BAE System’s ‘structural battery’ where energy can be stored in the structure of a vehicle, which in turn cuts the need for heavy batteries, cutting energy requirements – you can start to see all sorts of potential for solar powered vehicles.
Thirty plus years on, the 10 year old me is still excited by technology and the potential for human ingenuity. So we’ve got to ignore the calls of those with a bizarre compulsion to cling to the past and put human ingenuity into the epic challenge that is living within the natural limits of our planet. Let’s dream our dreams and ignore those who can only sit at the sidelines and sneer.