Shifts Happen: Turbines and Transistors

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Some innovative work in wind turbines is interesting for both its potential and for the response it evoked.


California Institute of Technology professor John Dabiri is trying to replace the trend towards fewer, larger wind turbines - many now dwarfing the Statue of Liberty - by developing (and organizing) thousands of smaller and far cheaper turbines.

This is interesting for two reasons. First, because the idea has technical promise. Larger wind turbines interfere with one another, reducing their efficiency and increasing the wear and tear on their massive blades.

Installation and maintenance are costly, they're noisy, and a danger to birds. Dabiri's idea is to replace these individual behemoths with many small vertical-axis wind turbines and, more specifically, to arrange them in such a way that each turbine boosts, rather than interferes with, the power output of those around it. Also, these turbines are smaller, easier to install and maintain, quiet, and far safer. That could be revolutionary.

The second reason this is interesting is because of the response it generates from those involved in developing wind technology - a response that pits quality against quantity and, in the process, makes an age-old mistake.

For example, Fork Felker, Director of the National Wind Technology Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, noted that Dabiri's idea would require installing a thousand times more wind turbines - "requiring potentially millions of wind turbines rather than thousands to generate significant fractions of U.S. power supply." He also noted that the industry has been steadily lowering costs and increasing efficiencies by increasing the size of wind turbines:

"Going in the other direction, I believe, will not be successful," he says. "I don't think the math works out….if you're trying to transform the overall energy economy," he says, "You've got to go big."

I'm not saying Dabiri is right and small turbines are the way to go, but I am saying I hope so and, without knowing all the technical details, have good cause to think he should be given a chance.

The Transistor Shift

In 1812, as Napoleon invaded Russia, a Russian general was asked how he would fight against the better-prepared French troops. "Quantity," he said, "has a quality all of its own."

In the 1940s, radios consisted of roughly a dozen vacuum tubes and other components that were "big, expensive, fragile and power hungry." Then, in 1947, the first working transistor was developed at AT&T and it quickly found its way into consumer products. The first transistorized radio, the Regency, was introduced in November 1954.

Designing electronics in those days meant carefully selecting just the right components, whether tubes or transistors, with an eye towards simplicity and elegance. Tubes were big, expensive, fragile and power hungry - so the best designers were the ones who could get the best performance from the fewest parts.

While the tubes were left behind, that design culture carried on into the early days of transistors. The Regency had four transistors, which acted just like their vacuum tube predecessors - a combination mixer-oscillator, an audio amplifier, and two intermediate-frequency amplifiers.

Over the next decade, the cost of transistors dropped dramatically and a few people began to realize that the quality of components was no match for what could be done with a quantity of components. T. R. Reid, in his wonderful history of the microchip, The Chip, recounts how designers began to realize that a dozen or so of the very best components were no match for thousands, or even millions, of low-cost, low-quality transistors. That was when the real microchip revolution was launched.

I call it the transistor shift - when a technology community realizes that, while an old technology has been displaced by a new one, the old culture that grew up around it remains. That old culture prevents everyone (designers, engineers, managers, scientists, or others) from seeing, re-organizing around, and realizing the potential of a new technology.

In other words, shedding the technology is often easier than shedding the culture that surrounds it. When the culture finally shifts, the real revolution happens.

I've heard the same said about Microsoft. The software culture of the Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 80s was about elegant code - doing as much as possible with as few lines as possible. By locating in Redmond and counting on ever-increasing computing power, Microsoft programmers didn't shackle themselves to elegance. Similarly, the revolution in digital music represented the recognition that, while ones and zeros, may not perfectly replicate sound, millions of bytes can do a perfectly fine job.

So perhaps the pursuit of ever bigger and ever better wind turbines, matching the scale of traditional coal- and gas-fired power plants, is not the only alternative we have. And indeed, may only be a vestige of our hundred year-old electric industry and culture. I, for one, am hoping for another transistor shift.

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AndrewHargadonAndrew Hargadon is the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship and Professor of Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis. Hargadon's research focuses on the effective management of innovation, particularly sustainable innovation, and he is author of numerous articles, essays, and the book How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press).

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