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Just How Off Is EIA’s Renewable Energy Outlook? How About 20+ Years?

The US Energy Information Administration’s renewable energy forecast could be underestimating growth by as much as 22 years, according to a new analysis.

Is the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) forecast for the future of renewable energy in America wrong? It’s an important question, considering policy decisions and private investments are often set by EIA guidance.

EIA’s “Annual Energy Outlook 2014” early release overview predicted renewables would supply only 16% of US electricity demand by 2040, but a new analysis of EIA’s own data finds the outlook is “almost certainly wrong.”

According to the Sun Day Campaign, renewables will make up a much larger percentage of America’s energy portfolio, much faster than EIA projects – roughly 20 years faster, in fact.

EIA’s Renewable Energy Forecast “Simply Wrong”

EIA data shows renewable energy sources (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind) grew from less than 9% of total US supply in 2004 to nearly 13% in 2013 on the strength of solar photovoltaic and wind energy’s rapid growth.

That expansion rate raised concerns about EIA’s 16% by 2040 projection. “Given the relatively consistent growth trends of the past decade or longer for most renewable energy sources and their rapidly declining costs, it seems improbable that it will require another 27 years to grow from 13% to 16%,” said Ken Bossong, Sun Day executive director. “Thus, EIA’s forecast is not just unduly conservative; almost certainly, it is simply wrong.”

Sun Day’s analysis parsed EIA data for renewable energy sources within US net electrical generation from 2003 through 2013, and it paints a vastly different picture. If past trends continue, Sun Day forecasts, renewable energy will reach 13.5% in 2014, 14.4% in 2015, 15.3% in 2016, and 16% no later than 2018. That’s five years, not 27, if you’re counting along at home.

Interestingly, even Sun Day’s forecast may be too conservative. Five years ago, the decline of solar PV module prices as well as Production Tax Credit (PTC)-fueled boom and bust of wind may have been impossible to predict. Sun Day notes projections based on EIA data suggest hydropower, biomass, and geothermal contributions will remain largely unchanged, even as other studies suggest significant growth.

Solar And Wind Energy Lead The Charge

So if Sun Day is so bullish on renewable energy’s future, where will the US generate all this new capacity? Unsurprisingly, the answer is probably solar and wind.

Wind energy made up 4.13% of net electrical generation in 2013, with the amount of wind power growing by an average of 22,200 thousand megawatt-hours (MWh) annually from 2007 to 2013. Uncertainty over the PTC means that pace is unlikely to continue, but Sun Day uses the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) report of 12 gigawatts in the development pipeline to forecast wind energy’s contribution to hit 4.5% in 2014, 5% in 2015, and 5.5% in 2016.

Despite record-setting new solar installations in 2013, solar energy is still one of the smallest overall contributors to US electricity supply, but that’s about to change. Grid-connected solar contributed just 0.23% of net electricity in 2013, but that’s after 50% growth from 2010-2011, 138% growth from 2011-2012, and 114% growth from 2012-2013.

Sun Day combines these growth rates with the number of projects expected to come online in 2014 and 2015 to forecast an exponential expansion of net solar generation to .45% in 2014, .9% in 2015, and 1.37% in 2016. Exciting expectations, considering EIA only expects solar to generate .5% by 2015.

Other Renewables Hold Flat

The growth of wind and solar looks even more impressive when compared to other forms of renewable energy, and shows where the real growth will occur. Hydropower, biomass, and geothermal are all projected to hold steady over the next few years.

Hydropower has long been the “baseload” renewable electricity source, and the dominant percentage of renewables in US energy supply with 6.63% in 2013, but that sector’s potential may be tapped. Some small hydro facilities and upgrades at existing plants are expected to come online, but decreased water supply due to climate change may offset those additions to hold flat. Sun Day forecasts hydropower’s share will actually decrease as other renewables surge, falling to 6.55% by 2016.

Small hydropower facility

Small hydropower facility image via CleanTechnica

That same trend is expected for biomass and geothermal, as generation increases but overall percentages remain flat, according to Sun Day. Biomass (wood-based fuels, landfill gas, municipal solid waste, and other waste) is expected to hold steady at 1.48% from 2013 through 2016, and geothermal is projected to remain constant at .41% from 2013 through 2016.

While it’s worth noting EIA estimates both geothermal and biomass to increase between 2013 and 2015, that discrepancy may be a direct result of Sun Day’s more aggressive outlook.

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Written By

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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