I was chatting with a good friend of mine yesterday, Jason, who I hadn’t seen in awhile. We were talking about the election and areas we hope to see our country start to really focus on. Climate change and the environment was one of those areas. He asked me why I had shifted my focus from solar cells to programming and I realized that decision was something I’d thought a lot about, but hadn’t really put into words.
Efficiency has always been a passion of mine. How can we waste less; time, energy, attention, material, and so on? For that reason, I fell in love with the beauty of a solar cell. It was capable of taking a renewable resource and with zero moving parts or harmful by-products, convert that resource into electrical current. Quantum physics told us that eventually we’d reach a limit in how efficiently a solar cell could convert energy from a photon to moving electrons. So, pushing the technology to that limit was fascinating to me. It felt like the area where I could make the most impact on “world efficiency” and the overall environment.
After spending two years studying solar cells in college and almost four years working in the solar industry, I came to realize two things that made me question what I thought about where I could make the most impact on efficiency.
The solar industry felt like a race to the bottom, not a race to the top.
The driving force within the solar industry is “grid parity” which refers to the point in time when it costs the same or less to generate electrical power using solar technology as it costs the utility company to generate the same amount of electrical power using the cheapest alternative. As you can imagine, calculating the cost target for grid parity and how to get there is very complex. But, when the industry hits this point (and in many circumstances it already has), the game completely changes. It’s clear that solar is better for the planet and when it costs equal or less to generate power with it – utilities, business owners, and policy makers whose interest it is not to switch to solar, will not only have scientific facts and society’s concern for the environment working against them, they will also have basic economics forcing them to embrace the technology.
What concerned me about this concept was not how to get to grid parity, rather it was what does it mean for the industry when we do? Although the solar industry still has big technical challenges to solve, I felt like there was a relatively straightforward path to grid-parity. You continue to drive efficiency to it’s maximum and cost to it’s minimum. Right now, that’s fun and exciting and inspiring. It’s the good, clean guy against the big, dirty guy. But at the end of the day, the electricity market is a commodity market. And that’s what I mean by a “race to the bottom”.
Everything is about driving out costs and when you wake up the day after reaching grid parity, guess what? You’re a company that supplies a commodity. And at least for me, it was a bit frightening to think of being an expert in a technology that (best case scenario) is sold as a commodity. It’s not a consumer market. I wouldn’t interact with end customers, really. I’d have less of a chance to “impress and delight” real people. I’d be behind the scenes, making the stuff that lets my lights turn on and off. People don’t love their utility company like they love their car company or their computer company or even their refrigerator company.
Although you can add value both from the top (products, features) and the bottom (costs, processes), new markets, world-changing technology, innovation almost always comes from the top. That’s where truly transformative companies like apple and amazon and networks like twitter and kickstarter are born and live and where entrepreneurs are pushing the envelop as hard as they can. I wanted to invest in a career that would build skills for “competing from the top”, not “racing to the bottom”.
Inefficiency in consumption is equally if not more important than inefficiency in generation.
What I mean by this is that it doesn’t matter how efficient the solar cells on my roof are if I waste the energy they produce. All this time, I was concerned about how energy was generated in our country (which is still very much a concern), but hadn’t really considered how energy is consumed in our country. It turns out we waste a crap ton of it! Think about how often you leave the TVs/computers/lights on when they aren’t being used or crank the temperature up or down all day so you dont come home to a freezing or scorching house. This is all incredibly inefficient. By just replacing old windows on their house, my parents cut their energy bill by 40% last winter. That kind of efficiency gain is massive! And it has everything to do with consumption, not generation.
Cool. So what’s the point? Go around turning people’s lights off when they aren’t home?! Seems kinda low-tech and boring. Actually, that’s it exactly! Nest is a perfect example of this idea in play. Although Nest is compared to Apple in terms of their attention to design detail, simplicity, and user experience – what makes Nest so innovative is not their hardware, it’s their software. It’s the fact that their system studies your behavior, your preferences, and learns how to manage the temperature in your house. All you have to do is act normal and it is working in the background to make sure you are always comfortable at home, without wasting any unnecessary energy. It’s not bugging you to think about yet another decision throughout your day, it’s just taking care of it for you.
It’s obvious to me now that this is the future. We are in the middle of seeing the Internet shift from our desk(top) to our lap(top) to now mobile. It won’t be to long until all the products in our living rooms, kitchens, and garages are online too. And they’ll be capable of making smart decisions for us, in turn making our stores, offices, and homes more efficient. When I considered this idea along with arguments like Douglas Rushcoff’s Program or Be Programmed, I knew that I wanted to understand the world of software and contribute to making products and services that make things logically more efficient.
In a roundabout way, I think I successfully explained these ideas to my friend yesterday. Although there are many other reasons why I’ve become so interested in software and the Internet, these concepts are the two that sparked me to take a career risk and dive into programming and building software.