Almost Everyone Is Underestimating Renewables

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In a recent piece about why electric car benefits are just myths, skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg argued that electric cars are pointless because renewables will only make marginal progress in the coming decades, and coal is here to stay:

Of course, electric car proponents would venture that the perceived rapid ramp-up of renewables will make future electric cars much cleaner. This, however, is mostly wishful thinking. Today, the U.S. gets 14 percent of its electric power from renewables. In 25 years, Obama's Energy Information Administration estimates this will have gone up just 3 percentage points to 17 percent. Similarly, fossil fuels generate 65 percent of U.S. electricity today, and will generate 64 percent in 2040.

Luckily, I think we can resoundingly call BS on such an unambitious future.

Past predictions about renewable energy uptake/cutting carbon emissions have consistently and often astoundingly underestimated how fast the transition will happen.

Take coal, for instance.

It wasn't long ago that everyone—including this site—expected to see coal use in China growing for years to come. And now you see Chinese coal consumption, production AND imports all falling. You also see American producers, many of whom were banking on exports to India and China, getting increasingly candid about the dismal prospects of the coal industry.

Similarly, when I installed a solar water heater back in 2008, all the solar folks I spoke to saw only gradual price declines for photovoltaics on the horizon. Yet prices have pretty much fallen off a cliff since then, and solar is spreading pretty rapidly as a result, and efficiency, wind energy and other technologies are advancing rapidly too.

That's a big reason why corporations are reaching renewables goals years ahead of schedule, why many utilities are phasing out coal entirely, and it's part of why global carbon emissions actually stalled last year.

Of course I'm cherry picking the encouraging headlines that I like, just as Mr. Lomborg cherry picks his data sources to back his naysaying. (Note his subtle mention of "Obama's" Energy Information Administration—the implication of the presidential qualifier presumably being that these will be optimistic, treehugging, lefty predictions.) So it's worth taking a look at the actual track record of various "experts" regarding clean energy.

So whose predictions have stood the test of time when it comes to renewables uptake? According to a recent Cleantechnica piece, it was [drum roll please...]:


Yes, that Greenpeace. And it appears that even they low-balled it.

greenpeace predictions image

© Greenpeace

Meanwhile, a newly optimistic Mr. Gore has been shopping around an encouraging piece of trivia lately: Around the year 2002, experts predicted that the world would add one new gigawatt of solar per year by 2010. It turned out to be 17 times that by 2010 and 48 times that amount last year.

Now just wait until the world actually gets serious about putting a cost on carbon...