Thinking Tech

How Moore's Law can save the world

Posting in Energy

Renewable energy will win out. That's where the next wave of economic growth lies. By creating market incentives for it, we can get our share. Or we can let politics continue destroying our economy, along with our planet.

There are growing signs the Copenhagen talks on global warming could break down over the issue of money. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

When you are spending money it's a cost. When you're getting it then it's revenue. When it's sitting out there waiting to be earned, it's opportunity.

That's what global warming really is, an opportunity. Americans are in the best position to seize it, still. Here is why.

Europe is willing to give $3 billion starting next year to help underdeveloped countries cope with climate change. Those countries want more, despite being at greatest risk, or they say they will continue killing rain forests for firewood.

There is only one force powerful enough to turn this around, and it's not the U.S. dollar.

It's Moore's Law.

Moore's Law is implicated in global warming because it takes a lot of electricity to make and run chips. But chips requiring less power are becoming more powerful all the time -- Intel, IBM and AMD all make them.

The move was not made out of altruism. It was made to reduce heat. As circuit lines get closer the heat from moving electrons through them builds up and can short out the chip. The answer is to move fewer electrons, to run the chip at a lower voltage.

So the model of future computing isn't a desktop, plugged into a wall, but a laptop run on a rechargeable battery. Big savings there.

Supercomputers have changed, too. Google runs off a collection or ordinary PCs. Ordinary game machines can be turned into supercomputers, thanks to parallel processing. Lower power requirements, more processing power.

You probably know that today's solar panels are made much like chips. That's why Applied Materials is moving so heavily into solar panels. Very basic chip-making equipment can be repurposed, and they can sell a lot of gear that way.

Now what about new sources of power, and the problems of getting that power to market? Growing Internet resources, and low power supercomputers, accelerate that research, too.

What kind of energy research benefits most from better computing resources? It's renewable resources, including efficiency. You can double the output of any power plant by using better materials for the transmission lines. That research is accelerated by Moore's Law.

I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna here. But problems can also be opportunities.

You can solve problems by throwing money at them. You pursue opportunities best through market incentives. That is what the current debate over the government's climate bill is about -- where will we place incentives for producing and delivering the power we'll need over the next 10-20 years?

Current law gives most of those incentives to oil, gas, and coal. None of these energy sources have to pay many of their external costs, either in extracting the resource or burning it.

We worry constantly over what to do with nuclear waste, but what about the waste from coal-fired power plants? Forget the CO2 these plants generate -- are we accounting for the disposal of their mercury?

By simply accounting for the true costs of hydrocarbons, we create market incentives for renewable sources that don't have those costs.

The aim of climate change denialists is not just to deny climate change. It is, in the end, to avoid these questions, the cost of extracting and burning hydrocarbons, the chain of market incentives we have given those industries, the lack of incentive in current law for energy sources that don't have those costs.

But over time the cost of creating and delivering renewable energy is coming down. Moore's Law supports these changes. Hydrocarbons can't say that.

So renewable energy will win out. That's where the next wave of economic growth lies. By creating market incentives for it, we can get our share. Or we can let politics continue destroying our economy, along with our planet.

Your choice.

Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure