Silicon will dominate the energy future

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, Power Systems Design


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One of the most beautiful and amazing aspects of science and technology is its migration and how that evolution (and occasional revolution) advances humanity’s progression to higher and higher levels of precision in our tools and understanding of our universe. Engineering is especially important to society, as engineers at every level apply new knowledge in devices and systems that provide desired functionalities to the populace.

One of the most important things to remember about technology progression is that the current tech is the coolest thing there is, until it isn’t. To paraphrase Stewart Brand, once a new technology starts rolling, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road”.

This is no more apparent than in our current times, as our industry, our marketplace, and the world struggles with the integration of several disruptive technologies into legacy power, lighting, and industrial control systems that in some places have existed for over a century. We are confronted from all angles by things like wide-bandgap semiconductors, nanotechnology, Cloud computing, and all the things encompassed in terms like Industry 4.0, “smart” everything, and the IoT.

Each technological turn through the ages has each brought its own set of disruptions, upsets, and general chaos in the world as it usurped the previous way of doing things. Some disruptive technologies had a reduced disruptive effect on legacy systems because they created and filled new societal niches, creating their own infrastructures that did not threaten (initially) the other businesses in similar market ecosystems. Others not only caused market disruption, they also caused societal disruption as they replaced existing legacy systems.

The personal computer is a good example of a new technology that, while causing huge upheavals due to its functional ramifications, did not threaten existing household industries. When personal computers were first introduced, nobody bought fewer TV sets or vacuum cleaners because they were going to replace those functionalities with their new device. (Today the computer has subsumed into every electronic device on the planet, and of course the robot vacuum is the poster child of the future home.)

When it comes to energy, the rules of the marketplace don’t change. That’s why it’s such a boom-and-bust industry, as a large search effort results in a few paying wells that eventually reduce in utility, forcing the industry to dig even more very expensive exploratory wells that in their turn peter out, then rinse and repeat.

One thing I am fond of pointing out is that in every application space that a silicon-based solution was created, that solution (or others related on the same core technology) eventually comes to dominate that application space. According to GTM Research, the U.S. solar market is set to grow a staggering 119 percent this year, and the US is on the verge of its 1 millionth solar installation milestone. You do the math.