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Skeptical about renewable energy predictions? You should be.

turbines in fieldIn 1999, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Xcel Energy to double its renewable energy commitment to one gigawatt, it was a pretty big deal. Minnesota’s market for renewable power—and the couple billion dollars in associated capital costs—was big news nationwide, even if the increase was spread out over a decade. How wrong we were to think that a $2 billion renewable energy investment would be ambitious. Today, the region supports more than $20 billion.

But we weren’t the only ones that were timid in our predictions of renewable electricity’s potential. Based on data collected by the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, many experts were way off on how wind and solar electricity would grow over the last decade. I think you’ll enjoy this list, and I hope it inspires.

WIND

  • In 2000, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its World Energy Outlook, predicting that non-hydro renewable energy would comprise 3 percent of global energy by 2020. That benchmark was reached in 2008.
  • In 2000, IEA projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind power worldwide by 2010, but the estimate was off by a factor of 7. Wind power produced 200 gigawatts in 2010, an investment of approximately $400 billion.
  • In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that total U.S. wind power capacity could reach 10 gigawatts by 2010. The country reached that amount in 2006 and quadrupled between 2006 and 2010.
  • In 2000, the European Wind Energy Association predicted Europe would have 50 gigawatts of wind by 2010 and boosted that estimate to 75 two years later. Actually, 84 gigawatts of wind power were feeding into the European electric grid by 2012.
  • In 2000, IEA estimated that China would have 2 gigwatts of wind power installed by 2010. China reached 45 gigawatts by the end of 2010. The IEA projected that China wind power in 2020 would be 3.7 gigawatts, but most projections now exceed 150 gigawatts, or 40 times more.

SOLAR

  • In 2000, total installed global photovoltaic solar capacity was 1.5 gigawatts, and most of it was off-the-grid, like solar on NASA satellites or on cabins in the mountains or woods.
  • In 2002, a top industry analyst predicted an additional 1 gigawatt annual market by 2010. The annual market in 2010 was 17 times that at 17 gigawatts.
  • In 1996, the World Bank estimated 0.5 gigwatts of solar photovoltaic in China by 2020, but China reached almost double that mark—900 megawatts by 2010.

In 1999, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Xcel Energy to double its renewable energy commitment to one gigawatt, it was a pretty big deal. How wrong we were to think that a $2 billion renewable energy investment would be ambitious. Today, the region supports more than $20 billion.

Add a comment 7 comments

  1. nigel morris

    06.21.2012

    Michael

    Nice. FWIW, you prompted me to dig out a bunch of old forecasts that I am aware of for the PV industry, going back to the mid nineties.

    Just one example is a forecast in 1999 for global PV annual demand at 3GW by 2010. Result? 17GW.

  2. Emory Luce Baldwin

    07.05.2012

    Great news Michael, the work of over 100 govt scientists, NGOs, and industry reps shows we can get over 80% renewable energy by 2050 with current technology! Check out the Renewable Electricity Futures study (http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/re_futures/) and you’ll see how it blows skepticism out of the water!

  3. [...] by 205o. Given that “official” projections of renewable energy growth have been consistently beneath the mark, it’s not unreasonable to think we may be underestimating future [...]

  4. [...] month, Michael Noble of Fresh Energy put up a fascinating list of projections made by energy experts around 2000 or so. (I got there via Brad Plumer.) Suffice to say, the [...]

  5. Ramez Naam

    07.22.2012

    FYI, it would be great to update the above to include more crisp and credible solar projections. Looking at the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2000, their projection for ‘solar / tide / other’ for 2020 was 7.6 GW. At the end of 2011, per Wikipedia, Solar PV alone was 69.7 GW

    World Energy Outlook 2000: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/2008-1994/weo2000.pdf

  6. john Weinhandl

    08.17.2012

    Does anyone not realize that we can’t lose the base load power provided by coal? Wind does not create the jobs that coal does and is not cheaper per megawatt than coal. I’m not saying wind is not good….I’m saying it’s unrealistic to think that we can do away with coal. The best thing we could do is build new super-critical coal fired boilers that run at 70% efficiency compared to the 30% of the older units that run now. This alone would burn half the coal and emmit half the emmisions of todays units. Coal gasification os another great option. Coal is the most reliable form of energy and produces the most jobs. When does the wind not blow? The coldest and hottest days of the year….when is the greatest power demand? Those same days. Not to mention wind turbines must be backed up by either a cogen unit or coal unit.
    Just another perspective. Jw

  7. Roderick Beck

    09.11.2012

    Come on, guys. Investment spending is not the criterion. The right criterion how much energy is produced. Moreover, the capacity figures you quote are probably based on 24 hour utilization, which is not realistic for solar or wind power.