Clean Power

Published on August 12th, 2014 | by Giles Parkinson


“Experts” Have Been Misleading People About Renewable Energy

August 12th, 2014 by  


We’ve mentioned this before, but one of the striking patterns of behaviour in the energy industry over the last decade has been the ability of the “established” energy experts to completely underestimate the growth of renewable energy – and to overplay the credentials of fossil fuels.

As we have seen in Australia, this has been a costly exercise, resulting in massive over-investment in poles and wires, and in fossil fuel generation. Similar stories have been played out across the world.

So who is best at getting the forecasts right? This interesting graphic shows that the green NGOs – those accused in dealing in “fantasy” – are a lot closer to the mark, particularly when it comes down to forecasts for wind and solar capacity additions.

The graph below pretty much speaks for itself. Greenpeace has been a lot closer to reality than the International Energy Agency. Perhaps it also has a better grip on how quickly the world can move to a largely renewable-based energy system.

graph of day greenpeace

RenewEconomy. Reproduced with permission.

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About the Author

is the founding editor of, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

  • Thinkingman2025

    Its easy to get rapid growth when you’re near zero. What fraction of the worlds electrical need is this? I suspect its not very much, and both wind and solar needs a huge footprint. I favor nuclear fission using Thorium as a better alternative, but only China is building such a plant.

    • Roger Pham

      Huge footprint for wind and solar? To satisfy all USA’s electricity demand with half solar and half wind, with solar at 10% efficiency, will require 1/1000th the land area of 48 states. If solar PV panels are put on top of houses and parking lots, no new lands will be needed.

    • Bob_Wallace

      You favor spending 3x, 4x more for electricity than we have to?

      OK. Some people like to hit their thumbs with hammers, to each their own.

      • Thinkingman2025

        Bob, Roger: No matter. Huge footprint=huge cost. Will those PV installations be as good when they are 10 yrs old than they are as new? Highly unlikely. They are also vulnerable to dirt and storm damage, and not covered by homeowner’s insurance, so your idea is a financial non-starter. I prefer nuclear because of its small footprint, and 40-60 yr service life. Can a wind farm match that? I doubt it. Thorium nuclear cycle can also use spent Light-water reactor fuel rods as fuel for itself, thereby greatly reducing the quantity of high-level radioactive waste.

        • Bob_Wallace

          First, there is no huge footprint.

          If we powered the entire 50 states with nothing but solar we would cover an area equal to 0.3% of the lower 48. Rooftops, parking lots, and brownfields. Solar will likely produce less than 50% of our electricity, perhaps around 30% so about 0.1%. (I can give you the math if you want.)

          If we powered the entire 50 states with nothing but wind we would cover an area equal to 0.004% of all US land area. Probably something like 40% from wind so 0.0016% (Math available.)

          Panels are easily cleaned. Spray them down with a hose is all I do with mine. During the rainy season there’s no reason to clean them at all. If one lives where it rains year round then cleaning is probably never necessary.

          They are covered by homeowners insurance. If nothing else they are personal property.

          Our oldest solar array is now 40 years old. At 35 years it was still producing more than 96% of when new. The panels lost about 0.1% per year. Panels mounted in places with higher UV exposure (high desert) will degrade faster, but under 0.4% per year.

          Our oldest wind farm, Altamont Pass, is now being refurbished with new turbines after 30 years. Maintenance costs were rising and replacing the first generation turbines with taller towers and larger swept area meant a lot more electricity from the same amount of land. There’s no way to know how long up front, but our current generation of turbines might last 40 years. Perhaps more if they have been designed for easy refurbishing.

          I’m glad you recognize the waste problem with both uranium and thorium reactors. That is an unsolved problem that we’re currently kicking down the road to future generations.

          There are no lingering waste problems with wind and solar.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Just a bit more. We’ve seen no reactor last 60 years. Our oldest will be shut down the year it reaches 50 years. And the average lifespan of US reactors is well under 40 years.

            We may be able to expand the life of some of our reactors to 60, but not all. And the cost of refurbishing is high. It will make no sense to spend that money on many of the reactors we are now using.

            New reactors are already expensive. The electricity from them would be 3x that of electricity from a new wind farm and 2x solar. Building them for 60 year lifetimes would make the power even more expensive.

          • Thinkingman2025

            Don’t know, Colorado is a different place, but down here in sub-Tropical S. Florida, UV exposure is very high, and PV panels are NOT covered by insurance. We get hurricanes (no hail, though) about every 10 years or so, and they have to pay for themselves and pay for the roof every time there is such a storm, because rooftop PV panels void any warranty or homeowners coverage for the roof as well. That makes the economics of it impossible to meet.

            The ongoing debate down here is how to pay for burying power lines in the already developed areas to mitigate hurricane damage, but the cost is extremely high to do so. Adding rooftop PV panels to the cost won’t help anyone.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m sorry, I don’t find your claim that solar panels can’t be insured in Florida believable. Do you have something that proves that? And the roof penetration claim.

            AS for high UV levels, then expect any panels manufactured post 2002 to lose output up to 0.4% per year. At least 92% after 20 years. By then panels will be so cheap that you can add a few more to return to 100% and hardly notice the expense.

            You’re up around 12 cents for electricity in Florida. And you’ve got tons of sunshine year round. Claiming that solar won’t make electricity cheaper makes no sense.

            Especially if the alternative is to start increasing rates to cover nuclear that has yet to be built, as is apparently going to happen.

          • Thinkingman2025

            You obviously don’t live here, and have never had to deal with Citizen’s Property and Casualty, the insurer of last resort down here. That info came from my insurance agent when I inquired about adding PV panels to my roof when I re-roofed in 2009.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Haven’t lived there for a long time. In fact, about 47 years. (Except for some time on a sailboat about 20 years ago.)

            Don’t know what the current insurance situation is but looking around on the web I don’t see any confirmation of your claim when it comes to solar and insurance in general.

            Your problem may be restricted to Citizen’s and that might have changed since 2009.

          • Thinkingman2025

            That is because they don’t post the full range of restrictions on their web site. On top of that, they charge enough annually for me to buy a band-new tile roof every third or fourth year, with no replacement-value coverage. With homeowners rates that high, I have no extra $$ for desirable things like PV panels.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Why am I not seeing a bunch of Floridians reporting what you are reporting?
            Are you representative or an outlier?

          • Thinkingman2025

            I’ve no Idea. I live in Miami, FL. It just might be that few Floridians saw this thread.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’ve googled a couple of different ways and found no reports similar to what you are reporting.

        • Vensonata

          You haven’t entered the ballpark yet . When you talk about pv at 10 years, that was the kind of disinformation Koch brothers were handing out …ten years ago. My ten year old panels are still 100% and I expect in another 30 years they’ll still be cranking just fine. “Vulnerable to dirt” gosh maybe it will rain or we could wash them. Mine haven’t ever been washed and they gleam like new…. Etc. etc.

  • Michael Fcuk

    One observation definitely makes a trend. Good reporting!

    • Bob_Wallace

      You’ve missed the series….

  • Kiwiiano

    Or Australia & New Zealand. ;^(

  • For people requesting it, the source of this graph is apparently this Greenpeace report:

    via Alan Nogee (if you are on Twitter, you need to follow Alan):

  • vensonata

    We just came through a 5 year recession in which every major company and bank, Wall street and the U.S government was “taken by surprise”. The lefty liberals were not taken by surprise. They were surprised it didn’t happen sooner. Green Peace has access to the right hemisphere of the brain…you know, where poetry and music and spirituality exist. This can be intuitively a much better predictor of the future than the left hemisphere which, strangely enough, tends to produce a right wing person. Give me Leonardo Da Vinci any day over a bureaucratic drudge trying to predict the future for the government.

  • Todd

    When put in context of other energy sources, for example, USA 2013 energy generation… click on “high resolution image”

  • Job001

    I had seen the IEA’s projections before and thought, “No way”. Good article!

  • Job001

    It’s all about the learning curve and cognitive bias in action. People suffer from various human biases(heuristic ways of thinking according to recent neurological research).

    According to my learning curve projections with installed solar declining 50% per decade i.e. 7%/yr, (1.07^10)^-1 => 50%/decade cost reduction will indeed wipe out nuclear and coal. Perhaps also fusion, ITER surely cannot compete 20 years out with solar at 75% reduced costs. Likewise wind at 4%/yr or 33% reduction per decade. Wind and solar play well together over large scale distribution. When combined with efficient use demand reduction(think MPG, LED’s, etc.) (roughly 2%/yr or 20%/decade) the total results are undeniable.

  • Bob_Wallace

    I’ve been digging around for the sources without a lot of luck. But I did find this interesting prediction from the IEA in 2006…

    “Other renewable energy technologies, including wind, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal energy, see the fastest increase in demand, but their share of total energy use still reaches only 1.7% in 2030 – up from 0.5% today.”

    By 2012 global energy from non-hydro renewables was 1.5% according to the IEA.

    Things seem to be moving along a bit faster than they expected….

    • Todd

      But are they fast enough? “Even with huge expansions of both nuclear and renewables, keeping global warming below a dangerous level will be a tough order”

      • Bob_Wallace

        “A leaked draft of the (IPCC) report sent to governments in December suggests that in order to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) by the end of the century — the stated goal of international climate talks — emissions need to fall by 40-70 percent by 2050.”

        That’s from a 2005 baseline. 40% in 35 years is only 1.1% per year. With the rapid growth of wind and solar that doesn’t seem at all hard to reach with electricity. The US is getting close to 1% per year and solar is only getting off the ground.

        70% in 35 years is 2% per year. Again, not an astounding amount of transition needed.

        And efficiency is rapidly chopping away at demand which makes it even easier to replace fossil fuel generation.

        Transportation, at least in the US is pretty much already dialed in. The new mileage regulations negotiated by President Obama more than doubles new car efficiency by 2025.

        And then there is wide expectation that we’ll move to BEVs or FCEVs well before 2050. More electrified rail, battery powered city buses, lots of ways transportation is going to be cleaned up.

        The nuclear industry is running a new campaign now that the ‘nuclear renaissance” was stillborn. They’re pushing “Gotta use us too in order to avoid catastrophe”. Problem is, including nuclear diverts capital from cheaper renewables (more electricity for your dollar) and slows the transition (6-10+ years to bring on line vs. months for solar and < two years for wind).

  • Bob_Wallace

    I contacted Giles re: his source. Here is his reply…

    nogee is a former UCS scientist. Using his own references i believe

  • darren

    I take issue when people try to debunk some “facts” with some other “Facts” without giving detailed references. It’s especially guiling when it’s people who are trying to fight against misinformation (which is a good thing!), fight misinformation with a total lack of accountability. This graph with a “fact” line will only be taken seriously if it’s heavily linked to real, reproducible data charts.

    How can I or others reproduce that graph? Where are your numbers coming from? The message should be that if you can’t reproduce the same graph, the information shouldn’t be trusted. ie. trust science, not just words and pretty pictures that match what you feel might be right.

    Otherwise how can we all discover the truth?

    The IEA and GreenPeace lines do vaguely reference some documents. But why can’t they be linked? Do you expect people to just trust a graph?

    It’s everyone just trusting a picture shared on the Internet without them being backed up that has so many of us in the position of wilful ignorance that makes it so easy to misinform people. The Internet makes it so easy to reference things, so why not use that massive power? Otherwise this page is just as useless as you would have us think the IEA figures are.

    For instance, Annex A of the IEA Energy Outlook from September 2013 says that in Southeast Asia, “other renewables” energy generation went from 7 to 20 TWh between 1990 and 2011. [1]

    Unfortunately the IEA world outlook report [2] doesn’t really give much information about renewable energy – it’s just lumped under “other”, apart from hydro-electric energy.

    The figures in [2] about how much China has increased it’s consumption of non-renewables is pretty shocking, but that’s off-topic.

    It only took 10 minutes to find those links. I’m assuming since you posted this that you have better links. Please inform us all where from, some of us actually care about the science, rather than just the statements. Teach us please, but teach us right.

    [1] See

    [2] See

    • Larry

      “There are none so blind as those who will not see”

  • MarTams

    Australia and other countries should file a class action suit against the IEA and sue their “experts” for damages such as stranded assets. They should fire the entire panel of renewable experts at the IEA. All the governments that have used the recommendation of the IEA should sue. They are totally useless, and we pay for their mistakes and it is a proven fact.

    • Just remember that this was a former IEA. Thing have improved a ton in the past 2 or 3 years.

  • patb2009

    this is what is so disruptive, the movement will go very fast and we will see people moving over hard.

  • Kevin McKinney

    I note that “fact” has actually outpaced Greenpeace’s ‘fantasy.’ Nice!

    • GCO

      Greenpeace’s 10+ years forecast was dead-on for wind all along, and almost as good for PV: it properly predicted its sudden faster growth, only placing the inflection point around 2008 instead of 2007.
      Absolutely awesome job I’d say!

    • Calamity_Jean

      Not by much! I don’t think it would have been possible to get any closer without a crystal ball or a time machine.

      • Yeah, that’s about the best match I’ve ever seen for something like this.

    • allenrobinson613511

      just as Leonard answered I am taken by surprise that a single mom can make $7907 in a few weeks on the internet . check my source ………===….

  • Vensonata

    This is sinister. The IEA is obviously one or both of two things: incompetent or corrupt.

    • Ross

      Those are not mutually exclusive alternatives. I’d add conservative to a fault.

      • patb2009

        it’s also cognitive dissonance. If you don’t believe in something, it’s hard to see it.

    • JamesWimberley

      The IEA has changed a lot since 2002-2002, the dates of the lowball forecasts Giles is citing. A recent forecast would be much closer to Greenpeace. It’s the EIA forecasting that is stuck in the past. You could do much better than them by simply fitting a trend line.
      BTW, were the Greenpeace numbers forecasts or merely hopeful scenarios?

      • Bob_Wallace

        “BTW, were the Greenpeace numbers forecasts or merely hopeful scenarios?”
        Giles – sources? My brief googling didn’t find the 2001 Greenpeace solar report.

      • Matt

        So James (or anyone else) what were IEA from 2005 or 2006 predictions for 2013? I feel that last time I look they we still ok reporting on the past, but having problems with the present or future.

        • JamesWimberley

          Sample here (link). The IEA project renewables to grow 40% between 2012 and 2018, around 6% a year compound. It’s still much slower than the growth forecasts by solar analysts like Solarbuzz, but better than before.

  • Awesome. One has to do due diligence on big green NGOs. Some NGOs like Greenpeace are stepping into the “consulting” realm of environmental, economics and energy policy. Let’s hope they stay true to their original mission. Many of the big enviro NGOs have moved away from advocacy towards conciliation. But, I’m still positive about most enviro NGOs’ efforts.

    For instance, there’s big bird groups working weirdly on the extinction of windpower. A brief NGO website reading to figure out who’s on the board and where it gets it funding explains a lot about its intentions. When groups like Citizens for Families and Coal Burning are major funders of a green NGO, it’s probably wise to not give your hard earned five dollars. Please note, I made up the fake secret organization called Citizens for Families and Coal Burning. It does not exist. Weirdly anti-wind wildlife and environmental groups do exist. Despite not being against tall buildings and cats.

    IEA kind of does business development for global monetary funds, international banks, and sovereign state funds to secure markets for investments in something that stimulates exploitation of natural resources and building big things to process or burn those natural resources. Eliminating simple and effective options like wind and solar helps those big-thing investments.

    • I give a lot of props to Greenpeace. It is stigmatized for its direct action, but it consistently puts out really great stuff. (And sometimes direct action is what’s needed.)

      • Mint

        I’m never going to forgive Greenpeace and other groups for their anti-nuclear stance. Nuclear would have displaced untold amounts of coal in the past 40 years if these groups didn’t make the public fear it so much and blow TMI out of proportion. PWRs have their concerns, but coal is way, way worse for the environment and humanity.

        Greenpeace’s efforts with renewables will never come close to cancelling the impact of coal’s growth in the US from the 70’s onward. The success of renewables has always hinged on economics, with or without advocacy.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Cost killed nuclear. The industry was dead in the US even before TMI. TMI happened in 1979. Look at the graph below at the purple bars – plant starts per year. Almost zero by 1978, before TMI.

          Let’s stick with facts, shall we?

          • Mint

            TMI was the nail in the coffin. Anti nuclear talk started over a decade earlier. There were major protests in the early and mid 70’s.

            Your document shows that nuclear was quite affordable right up until the mid 80’s.

            I know cost is holding nuclear back now, but it wasn’t back then.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Did you read the document?

            One has to get only to page 2 to find –

            “Half of the reactors ordered in the 1960s and 1970s were cancelled, with abandoned costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Those reactors that were completed suffered dramatic cost overruns (see Figure ES-1).

            On average, the final cohort of great bandwagon market reactors cost seven times as much as the cost projection for the first reactor of the great bandwagon market. The great bandwagon market ended in fierce debates in the press and regulatory proceedings throughout the 1980s and 1990s over how such a huge mistake could have been made and who should pay for it.”

            I think you give Greenpeace and nuclear opponents too much credit for the crash of the US nuclear industry. The industry did itself in with its failure to deliver cheap electricity.

            “Your document shows that nuclear was quite affordable right up until the mid 80’s.”

            Proof that you either did not read the paper or read through a pair of pro-nuclear goggles.

            “The reactors commenced in 1966-1967 actually cost twice as much to build as originally estimated. The reactors commenced in 1968-1969 were projected to cost slightly more than the reactors commenced in 1966-1967, but they actually cost over three times as much as the projected costs of the reactors commenced in 1966-1967. Performance got worse, not better, over the decade.”

            The economic problem appeared in the 1960s and from there on continued to worsen. It took a while for utilities around the country to quit falling for the nuclear myth.

          • Mint

            He’s telling me to look at ES-1, and I did exactly that. Those figures for actual costs most definitely do not tell a story of costs in the 60’s and 70’s that doomed the industry. It’s all $1-2/W (2008 $) of high CF power with low fuel cost.

            Just because something had 2-3x cost overruns doesn’t mean it was too expensive. It just means it was a lot more than the original “too cheap to meter” estimates. If I tell you I can get a gallon of milk for a quarter, and it costs 8x as much, that’s still a good price. Note that he never shows what the cost projection was in the 1966-1967 baseline, and all we see are percentages. So that paragraph you quoted is made irrelevant by the very chart he uses repeatedly showing final cost. The bottom line is that the final cost was very good until the mid 80’s.

            He states, correctly and with evidence, that back then delays had huge impact on overnight costs. You seriously think protests and resulting permit delays and regulatory changes had no impact on that? I’m all for regulation, but only if there is scientific basis behind it.

            Greenpeace and other groups most definitely had a big impact. Why would cofounder Patrick Moore quit GP over the nuclear issue if it didn’t?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Did you not notice the number of builds that were abandoned because they were going so far over budget?

            “Just because something had 2-3x cost overruns doesn’t mean it was too expensive. It just means it was a lot more than the original “too cheap to meter” estimates”

            What it meant is that the promise of cheap electricity was not fulfilled and orders for new reactors dried up.

            Don’t try to blame anti-nuclear protesters. There were (and are) areas of the country where there are few anti-nuclear individuals and they quit building reactors there as well.

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