Solar’s rise to dominance closer than we think

The use of solar power is increasing at a prodigious rate around the world and Australia is no exception.

In fact solar’s growth may be have already reached an unforeseen tipping point, according to American inventor and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil formulated what he called the ‘law of accelerating returns’ after having studied numerous technology adoption curves.  He analysed the accelerating growth rates of a variety of technologies and found some counterintuitive and staggering results.

The human genome project for example aimed to decode the entire human genome in 15 years. Around half way through the project, it was noted that only 1% of the entire genome had been completed, prompting many to describe the project as a failure–but not Kurzweil.

He boldly proclaimed that the project was a success because 1% was halfway to 100% in the terms that actually mattered: the rate of improvement. He turned out to be absolutely correct and the project finished several years ahead of schedule.

But how can 1% be half way to 100%? Here’s how his theory works: in terms of doubling capacity, 1% is halfway between nothing and 100% because there are seven doublings from 1% to 100%. One double is two, which doubled is four, etc., reaching 128% after seven doublings.

Solar deployment is currently around 1% of world of global energy generation, so theoretically, we are halfway to dominating electricity generation using Kurweil’s formula. It has taken us around 40 years to get to where we are today with manufacturing capacity and price accelerating at an almost logarithmically accelerating pace.

According to Kurzweil’s formula we would expect to see the second half of the rise occur faster than the first half; so it will take less than 40 years, and issues other than price will clearly be the dominant factor because solar is already price-competitive in many countries.

The big challenges now look likely to be changing traditional electricity business models and network penetration issues; which are slowing solar’s rise in many countries, Australia included.

Will solar reach 100% and full market dominance? Although it is theoretically possible, that seems unlikely and indeed, a diverse energy mix is preferable. But one thing is clear: if history is anything to go by it will happen faster than anyone previously though possible. Kurzweil’s model proves this is this case.

Top image credit: Photo by Michael Lutch. Courtesy of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. via Wikipedia

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd

Nigel Morris

Nigel is one of the foremost solar energy analysts in Australia, having worked in the industry for over two decades.
Nigel Morris