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The US Government Keeps Spectacularly Underestimating Solar Energy Installation (qz.com) 151

Michael J. Coren reports via Quartz: Every two years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), America's official source for energy statistics, issues 10-year projections about how much solar, wind and conventional energy the future holds for the U.S. Every two years, since the mid-1990s, the EIA's projections turn out to be wrong. Last year, they proved spectacularly wrong. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, and Statista recently teamed up to analyze the EIA's predictions for energy usage and production. They found that the EIA's 10-year estimates between 2006 to 2016 systematically understated the share of wind, solar and gas. Solar capacity, in particular, was a whopping 4,813% more in 2016 than the EIA had predicted in 2006 it would be. To be fair, there is a caveat here: The prediction in 2006 was that 10 years hence the U.S. would be generating just 0.8 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy. With such a low baseline figure, any increase will look huge in percentage terms. Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable trend in the data: The EIA regularly underestimates the growth in renewables but overestimates U.S. fossil-fuel consumption, which some critics see as an attempt to boost the oil and gas industry.
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The US Government Keeps Spectacularly Underestimating Solar Energy Installation

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  • Ffs. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by thesupraman ( 179040 )

    Or just perhaps in 2006 the rapidly decreasing cost of panels was not predictable?
    Perhaps (actually..) they were talking about actual output not the now commonly used peak figure that assumes a bright sun is directly overhead 24/7?
    Just maybe they were not allowing for the large government subsidy injections that have made large solar project profitable regardless of their output or power prices?

    No, must be a conspiracy.
    Next please.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      EIA projections are linear but the PV growth is exponential. PV is not a fuel. It's a technology and is not subject to the same physical chemical restrictions that come with burning fossil fuels.

      You'd think they'd learn but they've been significantly off every year for a long time.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Predictions are hard, particularly when they deal with the future.

      The message of this article is that the projections were wrong, so that means solar and wind are the most best things in the world.

      • Predictions are hard, particularly when they deal with the future.

        Did AC realize that what he or she said was very funny in a Yogi Berra kind of way? Hard or easy, predictions are, by definition, always about the future. D'oh! Either way the remark is a gem. I think my stock broker might have told me the same thing once.

        Here are a few more Yogi-isms. [usatoday.com]

        FYI I recall reading once that many of these witticisms were supplied by Mr Berra's publicist. Does not make them less funny.

    • To be fair, the solar PV industry itself and their proponents greatly underestimated growth as well, but lets not let that get in the way of a good EIA bashing session;

      http://grist.org/article/mckin... [grist.org]
      • When the estimates and predictions of the "Experts" are consistently off, it means their methodology is wrong and needs to be fixed.
        • Methodology and predictions of experts are ALWAYS off.

          Even in the early 1980s no one was predicting the ubiquity of mobile phones and in the 1990s, marrying mobile phones to tablet computers was a pipe dream.

          Technological predictions of the future are about 50:50 2 years out and get worse as the predicted period goes further out. On the other hand ecological ones have proven to be chillingly accurate over long periods.

          One of the more "interesting" problems with solar manufacture is the cost externality bein

    • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @09:12AM (#55409183) Homepage

      Me from 2000: http://www.dougengelbart.org/c... [dougengelbart.org]
      Me from 2004: http://www.kurtz-fernhout.com/... [kurtz-fernhout.com]
      Me from 2008: https://groups.google.com/foru... [google.com]

      Or me from 2011:
      http://phibetaiota.net/2011/09... [phibetaiota.net]
      "The greatest threat facing the USA is the irony inherent in our current defense posture, like for example planning to use nuclear energy embodied in missiles to fight over oil fields that nuclear energy could replace. This irony arises in part because the USAâ(TM)s current security logic is still based on essentially 19th century and earlier (second millennium) thinking that becomes inappropriate applied to 21st century (third millennium) technological threats and opportunities. That situation represents a systematic intelligence failure of the highest magnitude. There remains time to correct this failure, but time grows short as various exponential trends continue."

      Frankly, I've spent almost twenty years on Slashdot arguing with many posters who disregarded solar energy (and other renewables, as well as energy efficiency); example of me debating that from 2013:
      https://hardware.slashdot.org/... [slashdot.org]
      https://hardware.slashdot.org/... [slashdot.org]

      See also Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute's work, including from 1982.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      Or John Todd and the (now defunct/spunoff) New Alchemy Institute.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
      "The New Alchemy Institute was a research center that did pioneering investigation into organic agriculture, aquaculture, and bioshelter design between 1969 and 1991. It was founded by John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, and William McLarney. Its purpose was to research human support systems of food, water, and shelter and to completely rethink how these systems were designed."

      And Home Power magazine. https://www.homepower.com/ [homepower.com]

      Solar energy has been more and more effective in ever broader niche uses which drove its growth for decades (as Home Power magazine and others predicted years ago) -- from satellites, to calculators, to homes ten miles off-grid, to generator replacements for temporary traffic lights, to one mile-off-grid homes, to on-grid homes. Finally now that grid parity has been widely reached and it is becoming foolish in most places to install anything but solar PV for electricity generation, now everyone wakes up to what has been going on. Although even now their remain deniers here and there (as in that slashdot post linked above).

      === The bigger picture: general exponential trends across multiple technologies

      As I noted in the 2000 post I made, the same exponential changes in technological capacity that drive cheaper PV also apply in other areas -- even for cheaper nuclear energy (whether from uranium, thorium or hot/cold fusion). But for the same reasons most people ignored the PV trends, most people ignore these other trends.

      Here is a proposal I sent to DARPA in 1999 to try to deal with the consequences of exponential technological growth (including(as we see with North Korea recently increased capacity globally for making WMDs):
      https://groups.google.com/foru... [google.com]
      "I agree with Hans Moravec on several points; one of them is the implications of this chart:

      • by currently_awake ( 1248758 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @10:50AM (#55409575)
        Once full human level AI becomes common, they will quickly take over the profitable portions of the economy. Given that Earths biosphere is toxic to robots (oxygen, water etc) they will want to leave for a better environment (moon, asteroids etc). That will leave Humanity living in a low tech third world backwater (the zoo) while the computers expand and grow and advance.
        • by Maritz ( 1829006 )
          They will "want" exactly what they're told to "want". And strong domain-independent AI is still a long way off.
      • So where are the "widespread" fuel cells and microturbines? Whatever "widespread" means. I won't even get into some of the other claims.

        • It's true that widespread nuclear technologies were bound to happen with widely available not only computational power to design the vehicles and warheads, but also gas centrifuges. It something like SILEX or AVLIS becomes widespread then even more countries will want to have nuclear weapons.

    • You hit a nerve, hence the moderation.

    • Re:Ffs. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @12:15PM (#55409891) Journal

      "Or just perhaps in 2006 the rapidly decreasing cost of panels was not predictable?"

      Funny because it was predicted. A lot. EIA got it wrong repeatedly, not everyone else.

      • The EIA may be wrong, but the owners/investors of generating plants that use fossil fuel are not. They don't invest when they see no return, and since they do not invest, the government does not provide incentives either. Sometimes I think that the government actually pays for the generating station, and sells their share to investors for $1.00

  • by Picodon ( 4937267 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @02:27AM (#55408281)

    Underestimating installations (what the article’s title says) is not the same as making a bearish forecast (what the article actually describes). The author himself wrote: “In the agency’s defense, the pace of technological change is unpredictable. Conservative models are almost always wrong during times of breakneck technological or economic change (as with wind and solar), and the government is not in the business of rosy speculation.” Then, why look for a conspiracy?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      Then, why look for a conspiracy?

      Because this is Slashdot, tinfoil hat central.

      • ...which some critics see as an attempt to boost the oil and gas industry.

        Well, apparently it doesn't work, so no need to keep obsessing over it.

    • " [snip] Then, why look for a conspiracy?"

      Because media has always responded well to conspiracy theories from the "Red Scare" onward.
      It's easier than actual reporting, and technology has advanced to the point where anybodies sane or crackpot opinion can be voiced. (Remember when we thought that would be a good thing?) However, sanity's boring, conspiracy is interesting, and people are stupid.

      Now to press 'Submit' and instantly see every grammatical and spelling mistake I missed in the preview...Fuck it, ba
    • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @07:30AM (#55408821) Journal

      Making a mistake once is nothing.
      Making a mistake twice, wake up call.
      Making a mistake three times, hey idiot what are you doing?
      Making a mistake 4, 5, 6 etc times, we are now getting into very deliberate territory and this is confirmed by the fact that other organisations had projected the increases in renewables much more accurately by recognising that the growth in renewables was logarithmic and not linear.

      So either the EIA are complete brain-dead morons who no-one should listen to or they are deliberately misleading people. Take your pick.

      • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @07:34AM (#55408833) Journal

        PS and I've seen arguments that renewables can't supply much of our energy because of bad forecasts like these. We knew those arguments were wrong and now with renewables making up large percentages of energy usage in many countries we've been proven right. Both wind and solar can each provide as much energy as the world uses.

        • PS and I've seen arguments that renewables can't supply much of our energy because of bad forecasts like these. We knew those arguments were wrong and now with renewables making up large percentages of energy usage in many countries we've been proven right. Both wind and solar can each provide as much energy as the world uses.

          Oh boy, is the coal brigade ever going to swarm all over you!

          But yer not wrong. Obviously the coal and increasingly the petrochemical industries are finding useful idiots who are stuck in the 1960's with regards to their understanding of energy production.

          Meanwhile I can see the wind turbines not too far away providing enough power that they are moving beyond just peaking. And the solar installs are popping up everywhere, with many eschewing the grid period.

          We can see solar installations in Alaska,

      • Not relevant. They didn't make a mistake and get corrected 10 times... they made a prediction but didn't know it was wrong yet because it was a 10 year forcast, then made another prediction a year later still not knowing their previous prediction was so off, etc. That's not 10 years of mistakes. That's 10 years of preferring to err on the side of caution rather than speculate that rampant growth would occur. Don't forget that 10 years ago solar was not competetive yet, and we had not even seen the leasing b

        • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

          It's not just ten years, they chose to ignore the previous couple of decades too.

          And yes, getting a prediction wrong several times is what you could call a mistake, or just plain dumb. The EIA have an agenda, it's very obvious.

          Other smaller organisations were perfectly capable of making far better predictions.

          So, after this would you trust any predictions the EIA make regarding renewables???? Would you quote their predictions?

      • Why do these people still have jobs? Clearly they can't do the job, so their boss should fire them and hire someone else. Or thy are doing the job their boss gave them, it just doesn't match their job title.
      • Making a mistake once is nothing.
        Making a mistake twice, wake up call.
        Making a mistake three times, hey idiot what are you doing?

        The underlying mistake here is classifying wrapping a wide error bar around an inflection point as a "mistake" in the first place, a mistake which you are apparently here to interminably repeat.

        The very first time I see the government correctly estimate an inflection point, I'm going into full-on Dick the Butcher mode: "the first thing we do, let's kill all the neoliberals", becau

    • by aaarrrgggh ( 9205 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @08:02AM (#55408919)

      I would call it a success story personally. Renewables matured beyond expectations, changing the economics.

      The problem is that poor predictions skew energy policy. Too much money may have been invested in the wrong types of gas power plants, too many incentives may have been created for rooftop solar, and adequate grid hardening may not have been undertaken to prepare for these issues. (All true.)

      The biggest hangover I see coming is the lack of an intelligent strategy for what electric utility companies will be in the next 10 years, outside high density cities. The research that was being done as recently as 5-6 years ago was going the wrong direction in this regard, and it doesn't seem like it has caught up (beyond economic policy changes to net metering).

      • by vakuona ( 788200 )

        Maybe that is the problem with needing a policy in which government effectively bets blind on one technology or the other. Government has to be cautious, and has to bet on technology that is mature enough that they can predict its growth accurately. That puts any truly groundbreaking innovation outside of anything government would consider.

        • Industry needs an impartial assessment in many ways. This assessment eventually gets corrupted and stops serving its purpose... but government agencies tend to take longer than private institutions.

    • Although the article offers the defense, which you quote, it is (if you read the article) not a very strong defense. As described in the article, the methodology of the EIA is a poor one, that gives poor predictions and can readily be fixed in a number of ways -- especially taking into account actual project and plans of entities deploying new energy sources.

      Continuing to do a poor job at prediction year after year, always failing in the same way, suggests that a revision in methodology is in order.

      I saw no

      • I saw no reference to a "conspiracy", or any conspiracy-like speculation, in the article.

        I was thinking of this sentence: “overestimates U.S. fossil-fuel consumption, which some critics see as an attempt to boost the oil and gas industry.”

        Continuing to do a poor job at prediction year after year, always failing in the same way, suggests that a revision in methodology is in order.

        I agree. However, I also imagine that, in general, production forecasts are very difficult to get right, and I don’t find it shocking that they have been much more accurate with energy sources that (1) have been used for a long time (they can rely on long-term historical data), (2) require long-term planning on the part of operators (because

    • "Bearish" is not predicting 1/40 of the actual. A prediction of 1/40 of actual means "we didn't have a clue".

      What makes this a possible conspiracy is that the forecasts closely match those produced by fossil fuel industry analysts.

      Now, of course, this administration is moving towards undercutting solar by applying tariffs to imported solar panels.

      In decade or two, the rest of the world will have cheap renewable energy and the USA will be left paying the Koch brothers and their like. This will be devastating

  • Well duh (Score:2, Informative)

    by Solandri ( 704621 )
    Federal tax subsidies for renewables exploded starting in 2006 [cbo.gov]. Of course any projections made in 2006 based on extrapolating 2000-2005 subsidy levels would be inaccurate.

    For solar in particular, it got just $174 million in subsidies in 2007 [windfarmrealities.org]. By 2010 it got $1.1 billion [eia.gov]. And in 2013 it received $5.3 billion. Or to put it as TFA does, it received 3046% more in subsidies in 2013 than it did in 2007.

    You increase subsidies by 30x over 7 years, the story would've been if growth hadn't increase by more
    • by aliquis ( 678370 )

      Well, at-least it's 25% less subsidies / capacity unit then.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Uberbah ( 647458 )

      That's still competing against the infinitely larger subsidies to the fossil fuel industry - whether direct tax subsidies or indirect like letting them drill public land and not clean up the environmental damage they produce. Then there's the massive inflation of demand by spending many billions per year on highways to move and more cars around.

  • by Dasher42 ( 514179 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @03:23AM (#55408379)

    C'mon SlashDot, we've seen this. A) Important advances make an old monopoly face a future of obsolescence. B) Monopolists lean on the government to use messaging or force to make everyone play ball the old way. C) It doesn't work in the end, making a waste of all the wrangling. Make no mistake: renewables are starting to undercut fossil fuels. If the USA didn't have a 220% or more tarriff on Chinese solar panels to protect its manufacturers, this would be even further along. The oil industry is pulling a lot of levers to get more money out of its old markets before they're obsolete is all. It doesn't change the fact that they're seeing their version of Napster.

    • Why on Earth would we want the Chinese to destroy our solar power industry with their dirty panels? You realize there are no environmental regulations over there? Why should we be assisting in more pollution no matter where it happens on the globe?
      • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

        " You realize there are no environmental regulations over there?"
        Of course that's not true, but the actual fact is that the regulations aren't good enough and they aren't enforced sometimes.

        And why isn't this covered by trade treaties? The west could force China eta al to clean up their act very fast, but they don't. Instead trade treaties are being used to fuck us over - the workers, consumers, standards, public services and the environment. Trade treaties are the latest way for corporations to get what th

  • Nothing changed (Score:4, Insightful)

    by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @03:37AM (#55408401)

    Absolutely nothing changed in the past 10 years that could have had an affect on the prediction.

    No federal subsidy changes
    No multinational agreement to work on climate change
    No massive change in production causing the prices of solar to plummet
    No President who actually was somewhat for greening up the country

    This is all just the EIA's shortsightedness, or big oil influence, or (insert other blame game whackjob conspiracy).

  • Seems to me that all these agencies are simply pork office buildings and mouth pieces that have no credibility or duty except to the people that appointed them to the position.

  • Predicting things is hard, especially things in the future.

    I have to ask, what if the EIA was wrong in the other direction? What if instead of actual capacity being 4000% of the prediction we had a prediction that was 4000% of the actual? Would there still be outrage over this to the point that we'd be reading about it now?

    This can't be just a failure of a government agency having difficulty predicting the growth of a new industry, it has to be some sort of conspiracy from "big oil". I'm pretty sure that

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The qz article shows the EIA forecasts even ignore active projects about to come online. They either have a totally crap, only backward looking methodology, or they are purposefully under estimating. Thou choose.

  • The biggest producer of solar panels, China, and also one of the countries that is betting big on solar also makes wrong predictions about this.

    Their prediction of 2017 from 2016 are wrong. Their prediction from early 2017 about 2018 have already been updated.

    If you want to fault the US for these kinds of things, these predictions are not the ones you should be looking at.

  • Trump will force more dirty coal to be burnt so that the projections are correct.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    The EIA estimates generation, not capacity. The NRDC uses capacity, based on the nameplate rating of the installation, which is an instantaneous maximum power output.

  • The EIA regularly underestimates the growth in renewables but overestimates U.S. fossil-fuel consumption, which some critics see as an attempt to boost the oil and gas industry.

    I'm trying to figure out how this "boosts" the oil and gas industry.

    At best some armchair investors my decide these predictions should guide their investment in either coal/oil stocks or futures contracts. Pro investors aren't likely to use a single predictive metric and will more likely be cross-referencing these predictions with past performance and actual market histories.

    Otherwise it's just a prediction that wound up wrong, and mostly it seems to be in solar's favor. If they predicted X amount of sola

    • The predictions pushed money into phasing out heavy oil power plants (and presumably coal, although that was likely more influenced by fracking), along with less efficient gas power plants. While this may seem like a good thing on the surface, it has led to excess capacity of these sources; some of them should have been retired altogether.

      More importantly, it likely pushed us back 3-5 years on planning for a higher percentage of renewables on the grid both in terms of policy and technology. The CAISO "net

      • Basically, the only oil fired power plants in the USA are in isolated small towns, the southern tip of Florida (for those days they get the weather forecast wrong and don't have enough gas. Pipelines are constrained, no storage to speak of.) and Hawaii.

        Hawaii is the only place where what you describe is happening. But even there, solar does zero at night.

        • There were many heavy oil power plants close to refineries or where oil was readily available, such as Southern California. Most of them started the transition to natural gas around 2003-4. Other locations must have been similar due to economic benefits, although where coal was readily available this might not have dominated policy.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Take Florida, they have secondary inspections above and beyond and require 'certified' installations(even if off grid) making the cost of smaller solar installs many times what it costs up north. It's a bloody shame considering the Florida sun hours.

    I have a 2KW solar installation in the north east where there is only 2 sun hours a say on average, if I could do the same in Florida for a similar(or twice the) price I would in a heart beat... but it's a no go.. evil local and state governments in Florida, it'

  • The EIA regularly underestimates the growth in renewables but overestimates U.S. fossil-fuel consumption, which some critics see as an attempt to boost the oil and gas industry.

    Maybe the EIA sells pro-pane and pro-pane accessories.

  • Was the EIA supposed to predict the future and all the advances in solar panel technologies that were going to happen in the last decade?

  • by LynnwoodRooster ( 966895 ) on Saturday October 21, 2017 @10:31AM (#55409475) Journal

    The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, and Statista recently teamed up to analyze the EIA's predictions for energy usage and production. They found that the EIA's 10-year estimates between 2006 to 2016 systematically understated the share of wind, solar and gas. Solar capacity, in particular, was a whopping 4,813% more in 2016 than the EIA had predicted in 2006 it would be.

    I see that capacity word in there. Solar generation is less than 1% [eia.gov] of total US power generation (lagging behind biomass, and not even 7% of all renewables). Methinks protesting about errors in estimates about capacity, rather than looking at the accuracy of projections of generation, is a big red herring. My bank account has the capacity to hold hundreds of billions of dollars! Unfortunately, the generation side isn't quite so endowed with zeros...

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council spectacularly underestimates the cost of disposing of and replacing degraded panels.

    • by AaronW ( 33736 )

      Most panels sold today will last at least 20 years. Replacing panels is a lot less expensive than the initial installation and by the time they do need replacing the cost for the panels should be significantly less if the current trends continue.

      • This is what they said about hybrid vehicles too. Once people realized how much it cost to replace the batteries in their hybrid, they usually said, "Screw it, I'll run on gasoline." Trends always end. And so what if they last 20 years. It takes more than 14 years to recoup the expense by not buying power from the electric company. That is "if current trends continue" as you say. But they won't. The power companies can't continue to eat the lost revenue. Rates will necessarily rise because they have

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