Besides your typical hockey arena, the most likely place you'll encounter a hockey stick is in a business plan or a startup business "pitch deck". Actually, you should be very surprised if you DON'T see one there.
A "hockey stick" in a business proposal is almost always a projection of rapidly increasing sales, profits, or both. It gets the name because the graph invariably looks like the sticks that hockey players use, like the stick on the left in the graphic above. Things start off slowly (the blade of the stick), then rapidly turn upward and head towards the heavens (the main part of the stick).
What might a startup business plan "pitch deck" look like? How about, sales in year one of $ 50,000, then $ 1,000,000 in year two, and $ 20,000,000 in year three? Accompanying that will be a giant loss in year one, breakeven in year two, and $ 8 million in profits in year three.
Don't bet the money in your wallet on any of those year three results.
"Hockey sticks" always look appealing, but real "hockey stick" results are about as common as seeing a unicorn skating on real ice.
But besides hockey arenas, one place you actually see them, both in graphic form and in reality, is in technology. Moore's Law – the doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every 18 months or so – is a real life technological "hockey stick". And it's almost 55 years old – or long, if you look at on a graph. It's an unbelievable "hockey stick", and without doubt, you've benefitted immensely from it, whether you knew it or not.
There's another technological "hockey stick" that, like Moore's Law, is having a profound impact. This one has to do with the efficiency of solar photovoltaic panels. When you look at improvements in solar panel efficiency in a graph, you'll see a veritable "hockey stick" on the page.
The solar panel "hockey stick" just got a little longer. Recently, Professor Hiroki Misawa and his Japanese research team reported that they've created solar panels that are almost 85% efficient, about double the last solar panel technological breakthrough, which was reported just last year.
What the Professor Hiroki Misawa and his Japanese have actually created is a "golden sandwich", described below.
Here's a quick look at the solar panel "hockey stick":
- When Bell Labs created the first solar panel in the 1950's, it had about 1% efficiency, meaning that about 1% of the light was converted into useful energy
- In 1960, researchers created a panel with 14% efficiency
- In 1992, a group at the University of South Florida developed a thin film panel rated at 15.9% efficiency
- In 2015, other scientists developed a panel with 22% efficiency
- In 2016, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory pushed a panel up to 29.8% efficiency
- Just last year, other scientists created a panel with 44.5% efficiency.
- Professor Misawa now has an 85% efficient solar panel.
The bad news, if any, is that we're pretty near the top of the hockey stick. After all, no matter researchers do, they're not got to get more than 100% efficiency.
Besides the breathtaking increase in efficiency, the other headline is how Professor Misawa and his team got to 85% efficiency. As mentioned above, the solar panel prototype has a thin film of gold sandwiched between other substrates. The Japanese research was published in Nature Nanotechnology. Misawa and his research team sandwiched a semiconductor, a 30-nanometer titanium dioxide thin-film, between a 100-nanometer gold film and gold nanoparticles to enhance light absorption.
When the system is irradiated by light from the gold nanoparticle side, the gold film worked as a mirror, trapping the light in a cavity between two gold layers and helping the nanoparticles absorb more light.
The team was able to harvest more than 85 percent of all visible light using the photoelectrode, which was far more efficient than previous methods. Gold nanoparticles are known to exhibit a phenomenon called localized plasmon resonance which absorbs a certain wavelength of light.
When gold nanoparticles absorb light, the additional energy triggers electron excitation in the gold, which transfers electrons to the semiconductor. "The light energy conversion efficiency is 11 times higher than those without light-trapping functions," Misawa explained.
Obviously, these are "just off the press" headlines, so it will take a little time before you can go down to your local solar energy contractor and buy a panel with 85% efficiency. But if the commercialization of previous solar technological breakthroughs is any guide, it shouldn't take too long before such panels start showing up. After all, scientists only developed panels with 22% efficiency fairly recently, but such panels are presently available in the marketplace. Most panels, however, produce solar power with between 14 and 21% efficiency.
Just like other high efficiency solar panels, those that will be based upon this new technology will very likely be very expensive. That's because not only is it new technology, the core of it is a thin film of gold. While the gold layer is only a few microns thick, gold is still gold, costing more than $ 1,000/ troy ounce. However, the fact that an 85% efficient panel will likely be nearly four times as efficient as highly efficient ones on the market today, it will likely take only a faction of these new panels to generate as much as today's panels. For example, a panel that can generate power at 85% efficiency should produce as much power as four panels that produce solar at 21% efficiency. Obviously, it takes more than just panels to make solar installation, but you get the point.
As a result, the cost of the typical solar installation has been going down quickly. In fact, on a graph it almost looks like the hockey stick on the right side in the graphic above. A decade ago the average cost of a home solar system was $ 52,920 before tax credit. Now it is down to $ 18,840 before tax credits. This "inverted hockey stick" has a name – Swanson's Law. Swanson's Law states that the price of solar photovoltaic modules decreases 20% with each doubling of worldwide capacity of solar power capacity.
Competition in solar panel manufacturing is, to put it mildly, brutal. There's been a huge shakeout in the industry. Quite a number of firms, including many in the USA, have exited the marketplace. The industry is dominated by a number of low cost Chinese producers.
That might be the end of the story, except when you consider the "hockey stick" of solar panel efficiency. Obviously, the emergence of new technology is rapidly changing the game. Which points back at something often overlooked in the race the deal with carbon emissions.
There's a secret weapon in the battle in the battle against carbon; it's the real "driver" of the "hockey stick": technological change. After all, its technological change that has driven Swanson's Law and the dramatic improvements in solar panel efficiency. That's unlikely to change anytime soon.
The point is, if you want to have a real impact on carbon emissions, focus more attention on technology. Technology, particularly the basic research type, is creating the dramatic improvements that make solar power a viable alternative to coal, oil, and natural gas. If we're serious about trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and most people are – then our focus should be on doing more of the type of research that Professor Misawa and his associates are doing. Of course, what these researchers are doing is not a technological panacea, but it should produce improvements, often on a dramatic scale.
Lots of ink is spilled about loosening government regulations over the environment. Such loosening, in my mind, isn't usually a good idea. However, it also doesn't place us at the gates of Armageddon, as many people are fearful. Instead of focusing on regulations, a better approach I believe is to concentrate more resources on basic and applied research. Fund basic research because it often produces results such as those coming out of Professor Misawa's laboratory in Japan. Fund applied research because it can do the same thing downstream.
Hockey sticks won't be disappearing from business plan "pitch decks" anytime soon. Let's hope the same is true for technological "hockey sticks". The best way to make sure happens to fund more basic and applied science research.