EIA Renewable Energy Forecast Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s Wildly, Laughably Too Low

EIA Renewable Energy Forecast Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s Wildly, Laughably Too Low


I hate to criticize the federal agency I worked at for 17+ years, especially since the Energy Information Administration (EIA) does great work in many areas (e.g., data collection, energy market and oil supply disruption analysis). But when it comes to long-term energy forecasting (whether we’re talking prices, production, consumption, imports, whatever), I’m sorry to say, EIA has been not just wrong, time and time again, but laughably, outrageously wrong. And, sadly, their latest Annual Energy Outlook (the AEO – with “forecasts,” using the word VERY loosely, out to 2040) continues that abysmal tradition. More on the AEO shortly. But first, let’s review EIA’s track record on long-term forecasting, from a recent article by Old Dominion University Professor Steve Yetiv and me in the Journal of Energy Security.

*Looking at EIA’s 2005 AEO (note: this is somewhat random, but you’d find the same problems in pretty much ANY year’s AEO), EIA forecast 2013 oil prices would be around $25-$30 per barrel, with gasoline prices of around $1.50/gallon. The actual prices? More like $100 per barrel for oil and $3.50/gallon for gasoline in the US market. That’s off by a factor of 3-4 fold. Yikes!

*Back in 2005, EIA forecast US crude oil production would reach about 5.7 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2013, with Lower-US-48 production declining steadily after 2009. Actual US production so far in 2013? How about 7.3 million barrels per day (bbl/d) and rising fast? That’s wildly off, both directionally and in absolute terms (by 1.6 million bbl/d).

*Likewise, the 2005 EIA forecast for US natural gas production in 2013 was wildly off — about 20.6 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), compared to actual production of 24.2 Tcf. Not even close.

*EIA was also wildly off on U.S. gross oil imports, forecasting that they would rise sharply, from 12.3 million bbl/d in 2003 to 20.2 million bbl/d in 2025. What’s actually happened so far is that US gross oil imports have fallen sharply, from 12.3 million bpd in 2003 to just 9.7 million bpd in 2013. US net oil imports have fallen even more sharply, from 11.2 million bpd in 2003 to 6.7 million bpd in 2013. EIA predicted the exact opposite.  

*EIA’s 2005 long-term forecast also missed the future price of natural gas in the US by a huge margin: a forecast price for 2012 of $3.80/thousand cubic feet (mcf) compared to the actual price of $10.66/mcf. That’s not even close; heck, it’s not even close to being close!

*In 2005, EIA forecast that U.S. solar power capacity would hit about 1.2 GW in 2013. Where are we right now? According to Greentech Media, the U.S. is closing in (if it already hasn’t passed) the 10 GW mark in solar PV capacity right about now, and that’s not even counting solar thermal power generating capacity (according to this article, you can add another 1 GW or so of U.S. solar thermal power capacity). In sum, EIA forecast 1.2 GW of U.S. solar power capacity in 2013; the actual figure is around 11 GW – nearly 10 times higher than EIA forecast!

*In 2005, EIA forecast that U.S. wind power capacity would reach about 9 gigawatts (GW) in 2013. Where, in fact, are we right now? According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), installed U.S. wind power capacity at the end of 2012 was 60 GW. Quick math: EIA’s forecast of 9 GW compared to an actual 60 GW? That’s off by a factor of nearly 7!

We could go on and on with this, but you get the picture: EIA has basically ZERO ability to forecast long-term energy trends even close to correctly. Let me emphasize: it’s not that EIA is off by a just a bit; they’re off by orders of magnitude. In that context, let’s look at their latest long-term “forecasts” for renewable energy.

*According to Table A16 (“Renewable energy generating capacity and generation”) in EIA’s latest long-term forecast, the agency expects wind power generation capacity to increase from 59 GW in 2012 to 76 GW in 2020 and 85 GW in 2040. That may seem like a lot, but it’s only an increase of 26 GW over the next 27 years or so. To put it another way, that’s about 1 GW of additional wind power per year through 2040, or total growth of just 44% during those 27 years.

Put it this way: EIA must know something that billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who just ordered more than 1 GW of wind turbines (at a cost of $1 billion) doesn’t know. I’d also note that U.S. wind power generating capacity grew 33-fold over the past 15 years (from 1.78 GW in 1997 to 59 GW in 2012). Just between 2007 and 2012, U.S. wind power generating capacity grew nearly four-fold (from 16 GW to 59 GW). Yet we’re supposed to believe that U.S. wind power generating capacity will grow by only 44% over the next 27 years? If you believe that…well, I’ve got a nice, brand-spanking-new coal-fired power plant to sell you! LOL

*As for U.S. solar power (including solar PV and solar thermal), EIA forecasts that it will reach about 66 GW in 2040, compared to about 10 GW in 2012. That seems like impressive growth (a 6-fold increase over the next 27 years), except when you consider that solar has grown from just 0.35 GW in 1997 — a 28 fold increase over the past 15 years. I’d also point to the latest Greentech Media short-term forecast for U.S. solar PV installation, which indicates a rapid acceleration in solar PV additions over the next few years (4+ GW in 2013, 5.5 GW in 2014, nearly 8 GW in 2015, and over 9 GW in 2016). That growth alone adds up to nearly 27 GW of solar, just by 2016, with the growth curve accelerating upwards.

If Greentech Media’s forecast through 2016 is correct, and if U.S. solar PV growth were to level off at 9 GW per year after then (an extremely conservative/pessimistic forecast), we’re still talking about growth in U.S. solar PV generating capacity of 9 GW per year from 2017 through 2040, a 200+ GW increase (compared to EIA’s incredibly, wildly pessimistic forecast increase of just 56 GW in total solar power generating capacity (solar PV and solar thermal). But, of course, there’s no reason to think that the acceleration in solar PV growth will stop in 2016. More realistically, it will continue at the rate it’s been increasing. If that happens, we’re talking about mind-boggling growth of 675 GW in U.S. solar PV capacity by 2040 — 12 times greater than the growth EIA projects. (note: to put this in context, current total U.S. power generating capacity is just over 1,000 GW, which EIA expects to grow to over 1,200 GW by 2040)

The bottom line is that EIA’s renewable energy forecast doesn’t pass the laugh test, the smell test, or any other test of even minimal credibility. Given EIA’s horrendous track record in long-term energy forecasting in general, and renewable energy in particular, we shouldn’t be surprised at that. But still, you’d think the media and others wouldn’t just parrot this nonsense, but would take a few minutes to actually examine it. Nah, what am I thinking; they’re way too busy with important stuff like “Duck Dynasty” or whatever.  

  • glennbear

    The reason Darryl Issa and others of his ilk are not holding congressional hearings on EIA is because the highly inaccurate numbers are easily quoted when denigrating green energy and promoting fossil fuel interests ?  

  • Dan Sullivan

    But now that Sara Palin has stepped into that conversation, maybe not.

  • TBill

    I am getting hung up on the natural gas price forecast comment in above and in article.  Units should be mcf = thousand cubic feet?  Are we talking well head or residential price = $10.66 actual?  I thought well-head price was pretty low these days close to the $3.80/mcf predicted in 2005?