If The Price Of Solar Falls As Fast As Other Technologies, The World Can Breathe Easier

The official projections for solar adoption may be much too conservative.

If The Price Of Solar Falls As Fast As Other Technologies, The World Can Breathe Easier
Will Moore’s Law apply to solar photovoltaics? [Photos: OB via Shutterstock]

If solar power prices fall in line with other technologies, we could see continued price-drops of 10% a year. That’s according to an historical analysis of 53 technologies that finds a distinct pattern in how major innovations perform over time.


If so, the world could generate at least 20% of its electricity from the sun by 2027, researchers say, and thus allow us to move more swiftly away from fossil fuels than some official projections have indicated.

Mathematicians at the Oxford Martin School, in the U.K., base their forecast on Moore’s Law–the famous 1975 prophecy that computing speed doubles every 18 months because of the increased capacity of integrated circuits.

For the study, Doyne Farmer and François Lafond pretended they knew nothing about the actual progress of technology, putting “themselves in the past” as it were. They then predicted how each of the technologies–from transistors to televisions to various chemicals–would play out, while normalizing out different rates of technological improvement and volatility.

“In contrast, the [high renewable] scenario of the International Energy Agency, which is presumably based on expert analysis, assumes that PV will generate 16% of total electricity in 2050,” Farmer says in a press lease. “Thus, even in their optimistic forecast, they assume PV will take 25 years longer than the historical trend suggests, to hit what is a lower target.”

Many have criticized the IEA’s forecasts as overly conservative and history bears out the criticism. Similarly, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said solar generation here would total only 2.6 billion kilowatt hours in 2015. In fact, by 2014, the U.S. was already generating 29 billion kWh of solar a year.

Seeking signs for how solar could perform going forward, Deloitte last year tracked the progress of various inventions over time. It found that technology has a tendency to exceed expectations, as it grows exponentially once certain building blocks are in place. By contrast, the IEA and others assume solar will take off more steadily.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.