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The Intersection of Information and Energy Technologies

Why I think computational power will solve the world’s energy problems in this century.
April 27, 2012

Two talks at the TED conference this year formed, back to back, a sort of debate about the future of our planet. First, Paul Gilding gave a talk entitled “The Earth Is Full,” about how we are using up all Earth’s resources, with possibly devastating consequences. Next, X Prize creator Peter Diamandis gave a presentation entitled “Abundance,” about how we will invent innovative ways to solve the challenges that loom before us.

I believe that we will need great ingenuity to enable our planet to provide successfully for more than seven billion human beings, let alone the nine billion that will probably inhabit it by 2050, and I believe that information technology will make this ingenuity possible. Because of fluid marketplaces and an ever more globalized economy, nearly every important resource is becoming scarcer and more costly. Evidence of this is seen in the price not only of oil but also of aluminum, concrete, wood, water, rare-earth elements, and even common elements like copper. Everything is getting more expensive because billions of people are trying creatively to repackage and consume these materials. But there is one resource whose price has consistently has gone down: computation.

The power, cost, and energy use involved in one unit of computation is declining at a more consistent, dependable rate than we have seen with any other commodity in human history. That declining cost curve must be tapped to lower energy prices—and I believe it will be. This will happen as people ask: To achieve my purpose (in designing whatever device or system), can I use more “atoms” or more “bits” (computation power)? The choice will have to be bits, because atoms are going up in price while bits are going down.

Here are a few examples. When designing a car, one can put a bit more effort into stronger, lighter-weight materials, which will increase energy efficiency but possibly drive up cost; or one can put a lot more effort into using computational power to run simulations that optimize the use of materials. Today, computational fluid dynamics allow a designer to accurately design a new shape of car, put it in a computer wind tunnel instead of a physical one, and test 1,000,000 body designs to improve fuel mileage by significant amounts. This was never before possible for those constructing vehicles.

In solar energy, large fields of mirrors or photovoltaic panels can be optimized to be lighter, more reliable, and more power-efficient by putting a $2 microprocessor in every panel. An onboard computer that lets each panel track the sun independently replaces previous systems that used more steel, bigger gears, and bigger gearboxes—basically, more materials. As little as 10 years ago, the computing power and sensors needed to build a closed-loop, sun-tracking solar panel might have cost $2,000, or more than the panel itself, and thus the system would not have been cost effective. But with computing costs coming down by a factor of 1,000 every 15 years, all kinds of new opportunities arise to improve system design.

At eSolar, one of our companies, we designed and built a utility-scale solar-thermal power plant with a huge amount of computation embedded into the field of mirrors. We reduced the size of the components, cut the installation expense, and drove the cost of the system down to nearly half what had been achieved before. This experience proved to me the feasibility of replacing atoms with bits.

The price reduction curve for computing is not over—it’s continuing, and each year will open up further avenues for ingenuity. That is important because our current energy resources are not at all easy to compete with. Fuels that we dig out of the ground and burn are extremely cheap. They are, in effect, the concentrated storage of millions of years of sunlight falling on Earth. Ironically, the biggest component of energy costs is the expense of moving the fuel to consumers from where it’s obtained—and transportation costs are mostly fuel, too. So we are in a kind of vicious cycle. The way to break free of fossil fuels is to introduce something new to our energy equation that isn’t fuel.

I believe ingenuity in the form of information technology is the only variable that offers sufficient leverage. We need to replace a cheap, unsustainable form of energy with sustainable forms of energy that are equally cheap. The only way to compete with cheap fuels is to be more clever with computation; that is, to use as little of anything else as possible.

Bill Gross is a lifelong entrepreneur and CEO of Idealab, an incubator for ideas and prototypes that has spun off more than 75 operating companies.

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