The US Government is terrible at projecting the total amount of solar electricity that will be installed. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2006, predicted that 0.8 gigawatts (GW) of solar power would be installed in the USA by the end of 2016. The actual number was closer to 40GW – 4,813% greater.
Of course prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future – but this type of mistake should not be ignored. This inability to properly project data harms our economy, health, environment, and planet because public policy is designed off of these expectations of the future.
In 2016 alone, sixteen times more solar power was installed than the EIA predicted – in total – between 2016 and 2017. In about the same amount of time – solar power has saved the USA greater than $20 billion in health related costs and 1 in 50 new jobs came from solar power in 2016. The EIA recognizes the folly of their ways and has even responded to it.
These prediction patterns are similar to the International Energy Agency (IEA) – who recently upwardly altered their global solar power projections due to consistently low estimations. The purpose of the report was to upwardly revise solar power – they even added an extra section and did some more math to show us a ‘just in case’ renewables do grow even faster than our upward revision report suggests. Again, it’s great that these groups are at least conscious of their errors…but that’s not enough in 2017.
While the EIA has been under-predicting solar, it’s also been overshooting the total amount of fossil fuels we’d be using. During the period, natural gas overtook coal significantly. Natural gas was underpredicted by 79%, while coal was overpredicted by 45%. Fossil fuels for electricity production in total – 13% overpredicted.
There are a lot of reasons we should try to predict the future. Even with the challenges of prediction – we as a nation of 320,000,000 people living on a planet with 7,500,000,000 have some serious responsibilities – population growth, feeding ourselves, climate change, material usage, etc.
The primary purpose of the EIA is to collect data on US energy infrastructure and distribute that data. We then as a society react to said data. Being the owner of the data and being most familiar with it means you will be asked questions about said data. For instance – what are some historical trends? Are we using more oil than before? Less? What are we paying for it?
And then comes the challenge – “Please tell us what will happen next.” This question is asked because professionals – bankers, politicians, construction groups, environmentalists, etc – need to know how to educate their employees, what to campaign on, what to build, etc.
The biggest questions become – What are the potentials? Is it possible that California will have greater than 20GW of solar power in 2017? Might it be that in 2016 solar power will grow more than 100% over 2015? How can we be ready?
If we as rational people see that a ‘too good to be true thing’ (electricity from sunlight and highly processed sand) is turning into a real thing – then we’re going to do things to make it happen. Personally, a decade ago, I left the banking industry – making good money in my first real job – and got into solar because it felt right and I thought the time was right. If I had read this report in 2006, one that was so amazingly underestimated the industry – what might I have done instead?
This argument leaves these philosophical positions of potential business actions and hits reality when we consider that right now US politicians are talking about how to ‘defend against’ solar panels imported from around the world. If these politicians had seen this report in 2006, they probably would not have cared left or right about the solar industry if it meant we could hurt the competition from China.
However, if they read about Saudi Arabia low price records and China racing past us installing solar, maybe they’d refine their positions? If they took to time to recognize that tens of thousands might lose jobs in the USA with them signing via a pen – they definitely would refine their positions. Let’s be blunt though – these politicians do know – there are more people working in solar power than those who extract oil, gas, and coal in the USA.
If these same politicians also believed that climate change was real, and feared for the species the way some of us do – they’d see solar as a potential piece of the solution and put their careers on a winning topic.
If 5,000 people died in Europe because of lies from the car industry, then how many people might we save by pushing harder to shift away from burning coal and gas? And how much harder might we push as individuals if we saw projections that were realistic? Look at these projections by these groups like the EIA, recognize that they themselves recognize there are significant flaws and underestimations in their methodology, and solider on with whatever it is that you’re doing that is green. We thank you.
Header image from the ‘Hit me with your SunShot‘ photography contest. Mojave Desert solar. Photo by Reegan Moen.