The Untapped Potential of Wright's Law: Rethinking Technological Progress and Clean Energy


Revisiting Moore's Law and Wright's Law: A Missed Opportunity for Clean Energy

Gordon Moore's famous prediction, known as Moore's Law, has been hailed as one of the most remarkably accurate forecasts in history, accurately predicting the exponential growth in computing power over the past several decades. However, a recent analysis suggests that a misinterpretation of the underlying principles behind Moore's Law may have led to a significant missed opportunity in the field of clean energy.

Theodore Wright, an aeronautical engineer, proposed a similar observation in the 1930s, which came to be known as Wright's Law. Unlike Moore's Law, which is a function of time, Wright's Law is a function of activity, stating that the cost of production decreases as cumulative production increases. This law has been found to apply to a wide range of technologies, including solar photovoltaic (PV) modules.

Doyne Farmer, a complexity scientist, argues in his new book, "Making Sense of Chaos," that if governments had viewed the cost of solar PV through the lens of Wright's Law, they would have heavily invested in and subsidized the technology. The recognition that increased production would lead to a rapid decline in prices could have made solar PV cheap enough to render fossil fuels obsolete by the turn of the millennium, had this approach been adopted 40 years ago.

To test the validity of Wright's Law, Farmer and his colleagues analyzed data from World War II, when the United States significantly expanded its production of military hardware. The results showed that Wright's Law accounted for approximately half of the decrease in production costs during the war, providing evidence that increasing cumulative production can indeed drive prices down.

While Wright's Law may not apply to all products, and the price declines may not always be as dramatic as those observed in aeroplanes, solar PV, and computer chips, it offers a compelling argument for governments to actively subsidize production or demand in cases where the law holds strongly. This approach challenges the individual incentive to be a late adopter and instead encourages proactive measures to drive technological progress.

Interestingly, Gordon Moore himself seems to have been more aligned with Wright's Law, as he co-founded the chip manufacturer Intel, taking an active role in driving the advancement of computing technology. Moore's Law may suggest that good things come to those who wait, but Wright's Law emphasizes that good things come to those who act.

As we reflect on the potential missed opportunity in the realm of clean energy, it is imperative that we reconsider our approach to technological progress. By embracing the principles of Wright's Law and actively investing in promising technologies, we may unlock the path to a more sustainable future. Governments and industry leaders must work together to identify and support technologies that have the potential to revolutionize the energy sector, ensuring that we do not miss another opportunity to create a cleaner, more sustainable world.