Biomass Projected renewables share of global primary energy to 2050 (

Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Sandy Dechert


Greenpeace Aces Renewable Energy Forecasts. Surprised?

March 30th, 2015 by  

Over the past 15 years, many organizations have offered national and global predictions about the future of renewable energy. We’ve seen renewable forecasts from all of these groups:

  • International Energy Agency,
  • Global Energy Assessment Scenario Database,
  • US Energy Information Administration,
  • Bloomberg New Energy Finance,
  • ExxonMobil, and
  • Many others.

All have posted increasing numbers on the issue. However, almost all of their predictions have underestimated the actual growth that wind and solar power have experienced so far. To the surprise of many official participants, the forecasts from Greenpeace, via Meister Consultants Group, Inc., international sustainability analysts and strategy planners, have proven to be the most reliable of all.

Let’s start with the study’s individual results for global wind power and solar PV.

Global cumulative installed wind capacity forecasts to 2015 ( wind numbers tell a pretty impressive story. They summarize five forecasts. Two come from the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, widely recognized as the premier authority, claimed by the organization to be “the world’s most authoritative source of energy market analysis and projections,” and used by public and private sectors for policymaking, planning, and investment decisions. The Global Wind Energy Council, which speaks for the entire wind energy sector of over 1,500 companies and other organizations in 70+ countries, prepared one of the others. Greenpeace made the other two predictions. Its 2010 Energy Revolution scenario for cumulative installed wind capacity almost exactly parallels the actual growth curve (red line).

Global cumulative installed solar PV capacity forecasts to 2015 ( results for solar PV are even more dramatic, in terms of the future of renewables. This time, findings of two IEA-WEO studies are matched against two predictions from Greenpeace. Both IEA forecasts ended up being far too low, with the 2010 numbers more accurate thanks partly to new policy being implemented. Again, the Greenpeace 2010 Energy Revolution forecast comes out most realistic. In this case, though, actual statistics proved higher, nearly doubling the optimistic Greenpeace formulation.

Doubt about the aggressive Greenpeace Energy Revolution projections sprang from the organization predicating its forecasts on substantial structural, policy, and business changes. A nongovernment environmental organization coordinated from Amsterdam, Greenpeace may be the most visible environmental organization in the world. A group of Canadian and US citizens started the group informally around 1970 to protest nuclear weapons testing in an area of Alaska that had recently experienced a severe earthquake. It officially went international in 1979.

Over the years, many high-profile, often dramatic campaigns by Greenpeace activists (the group’s whaling protests, for example) have brought success, but others have backfired, sometimes spectacularly, as with December’s in-your-face and currently litigated disturbance at the revered Nazca Lines in Peru. However, from a sometimes spotty and disorganized early reputation, Greenpeace has emerged as a trustworthy supplier of very useful information about worldwide environmental trends, as this latest news demonstrates well.

The new report also includes individual statistics and forecasts for each technology in North America, the European Union, and China.

Projected renewables share of global primary energy to 2050 (

Finally, consider a slew of current predictions for renewables in total. All encompass growth, but, again, the Greenpeace numbers (2012) exceed all the others at 2050, with the high-end 2012 International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis GEA scenario closely paralleling them. The Meister organization makes the case that on precedent, Greenpeace’s numbers may prove to be the most accurate for planning purposes. And as The Guardian has pointed out, recent moves by E.ON, China, and other local and global institutions suggest that the changes on which Greenpeace pinned its estimates are already underway.

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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."

  • Hans

    Just a side note: If Greenpeace pays for a study from reputable academic sources (The 2012 Study was carried out by the German Space agency and Utrecht University) the media call it “the Greenpeace study”. If some fossil fuel lobbygroup orders a study from a consultancy, the media call it “the study” and don’t mention who paid for it.

  • Omega Centauri

    Interesting. Eco-activists nail it. Quasi-government agencies, which I would rename as Energy MisInformation Agencies flunk.

    • Hans, nitpicking as per usual

      “Eco-activists nail it” should read:

      Academic researchers hired by eco-activists nail it.

  • Matt

    Sorry but wind 2009-2013 saw linear growth ~40GW/year, if you smooth the USA 2012/2013 spike/drop (caused by GOP). Yes 2014 saw a increase again ~51.5GW, so maybe back on track but too soon to tell.
    PV has seen exponential growth and it is still happening. Which is why all the linear predictions (Green peace include) suck the day after they are published. It isn’t to hard to see that new PV plants are being built and existing ones expand and “guess” (that is what a prediction is) that installs will grow.

    • eveee

      Wind growth. The 2009-2013 thing? Too short. Its what happens when you smooth a lumpy curve. Which year do you start with? If you start with a banner year, it looks bad. No doubt 2013 sucked. Real question is will exponential growth continue. Looks like it will.
      Solar is growing so rapidly and has not reached big numbers yet it hasn’t had any let up.

  • Tom Capon

    Am I the only one who finds the author’s conclusion disingenuous given his own graphs?

    In the Wind Power graph, all of the predictions were pretty close to reality until 2007. None of the predictions made before 2007 (including Greenpeace’s own) predicted the sharp increase between 2007 and 2010. In 2010, Greenpeace revised their estimate to be a linear extrapolation of this new rate, which happened to match the next five years. But the graph does not include any other predictions revised in 2010 with the same information, so it proves nothing about Greenpeace’s relative accuracy.

    In the Solar Power graph, sure Greenpeace’s 2010 estimate was the highest, but still understimated the rate of solar installations by a factor of 2. Not exactly oracle-like performance, if you ask me.

    • eveee

      I get your picking with Greenpeace not being perfect. Now look at that Exxon Mobil thing and compare. Comparing with perfection is not reasonable. Comparing against other predictions is. Greenpeace put IEA and EIA to shame. And they make statements about their being authoritative. They are clearly not authoritative or anywhere near accurate.
      Nobody believed Greenpeace was accurate or even believable. But everyone quotes IEA and EIA even now after their predictions have turned out badly. Time to change that.
      If you are trying to say everyone underestimated renewables and still does, you got my vote.

      • Tom Capon

        I guess I was a little harsh. I did find it odd that no other predictions from 2010 were included in the Wind graph, but there’s no arguing that Greenpeace was the closest to reality of those shown.

        • eveee

          You got my vote. Everyone still underestimates renewables. Time to change perspectives.

  • eveee

    And EIA forecast no growth in a host of renewables for a decade. Its so bad a group of people wrote a letter to Energy Sec Moniz.

    Heres the IEA. Look at how they changed their estimate every year for half a decade. Thats embarrassing. And every year they predicted linear instead of exponential growth. How utterly stupid. Sorry, I just don’t feel like being nice about it.

    • Roland

      Those EIA prediction study’s individual results for global wind power and solar PV. They model what they expect to happen given the government programs in place at the time. Those programs typically expired after one or several years. The EIA predictions then show little growth afterwards.

      The projections are intended for policymakers to use as baseline. Typically Congress would extend the Production Credit act, which of course is going to make the EIA’s projection low.

      Don’t blame EIA for bad predictions. They are not making predictions to what they think is going to happen. They are making predicions based on the policies in place at the time with the assumption those policies will not be renewed.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Really? I know what they say but even they must realize it’s bullshit.

        Take away 20% of the PTC for solar and the price reverts to about what it was two years earlier. Were people installing solar two years earlier?

        Take away the 20%/30% PTC and solar installations go flat for a decade? Come on, that’s absurd. Solar without subsidy has reached grid parity in some markets.

        They don’t even predict the installation spike we should see in the year or two before the subsidy expires. They predict a slowing of installation into the decade of zero solar installations.

        And wind goes flat for a decade when the PTC goes away? Wind, without subsidy, is now under 4 cents/kWh. A utility that needs some more supply is going to decide to install nuclear at 12+ cents, coal at 15+ cents or even NG at 6+ because the PTC went away and they can no longer buy wind at 2.5 cents?

        No one in the entire United States will install any solar or wind for a decade?

      • eveee

        Roland – Im sorry. Thats just BS. Its circular. Those numbers are used to set policy. You can’t reason this out by saying the projections are caused by the policy when the projections are used to make policy.

        The ITC doesn’t end until 2017. None of those policy things has had any effect of slowing solar yet. And no policy change has stopped wind globally, either.

        No. I will keep on blaming EIA and IEA for sloppy, unreasonable numbers and annual re adjustments that just look like a grammar school student trying to do college statistics. At least until their projections look as good as Greenpeace.

        Nobody with any sort of grasp of mathematics and curve fitting tries to fit a linear graph to an exponential curve for 6 years in a row, all the time failing to fit the actual data and always with the error in one direction by a large margin.

        You just can’t call yourself an authoritative source and do stuff like that.

        No excuses. None.

  • Shiggity

    Every statistic in the world shows wind and solar still on an exponential growth trajectory.

    Anyone not *at least planning for* the exponential option is simply untrustworthy / being paid by someone not to post it.

    Under current growth trajectories, renewable energy becomes dominant on a global scale in the mid 2020s. (I know you shouldn’t assume an exponential curve will keep going, but if you don’t at least plan for it you deserve to go bankrupt and lose 100% of your money.)

    Mentally prepare yourselves for “Too Big To Fail” rhetoric again unfortunately.

  • vensonata

    Energy storage is the last piece of the puzzle. It doesn’t have to be huge, perhaps 25% of the total renewable picture, but it needs to, and is, coming on line like a tsunami.

  • Marion Meads

    EIA rank and file leadership should all be penalized, its workers and directors fined, and should be fired. NREL should take over them. Enough of these fossil fuel tycoon puppets. We would save a lot more money without them, without the necessary delays and other comical analysis that wastes time and money for a step backward in energy evolution.

    • Michael G

      Depends what the projections are used for.

      If they are used to show policy makers “Look, here is what current policies, laws, incentives, and so on will result in if we keep on like this. It is pretty grim and your kids won’t be able to visit Miami without scuba gear.” This might induce policy makers to extend or enhance “green” policies, incentives, etc. to forestall the “if things go on like this” case. That would be good.

      Suppose projections were all rosy as we all hope and expect. Then those *for* our shared vision would sit back and do nothing because the charts say “it will all work out” while those opposed will be even more motivated to roll back and block all the good stuff coming. Not so good.

      Projections are *not* made to make you and me feel good about the future. They are made to affect policy makers who are generalists and rely on experts to tell them the consequences of listening to the moneyed elites who currently buy our elections for us.

      I’m not looking forward to seeing President Cruz and VP Santorum running things. If a few overly pessimistic projections can keep that from happening, keep ’em coming! (Yeah, yeah, I know, an informed democratically elected govt. would be nice, but that’s just crazy talk).

      • eveee

        If they (projections) are used for policy? No if about it.

  • Martin

    What is the Greenpeace forecast for geo thermal and for hydro?
    Do they have their own forecast?
    Both of these are base line power.
    And are some the forecasts broken down by country, would be nice to know what the forecast was for Canada, Australia, Germany etc.
    And then have a current forecast, as of 2015, for the future.

    • JamesWimberley

      I’m not sure these were actual forecasts by Greenpeace, more feasible scenarios to impress policymakers. In a sense they have also been proved wrong, since policy has been less dramatically supportive than Greenpeace hoped for. Wind and solar have managed their staggering growth in spite of grudging and fickle support from government policies. Even China screwed up on the grid connections for utility wind and solar, and is only now offering a decent framework for distributed solar.

      One of the strongest reasons for believing that the growth rates will be maintained is that wind and solar are now much less dependent on policy support, and that is now far more a question of regulations and fair competition than of subsidies.

  • JamesWimberley

    And that’s leaving out the absurdly low forecasts for the USA from the EIA, at odds with those from the NREL – another agency of the same government department, which actually knows the sector.

    The incentives on forecasters working for established bureaucracies are asymmetric. You will be called out for a too-high forecast far more often than a too-low one because nice surprises are less objectionable than nasty ones. So it pays to err on the side of caution, and they all do.

    • Martin

      YesI did read someplace about a project within a company.
      They ask workers how long it would take to complete.
      Workers came up with a time line, doubled it and passes that info on to supervisor.
      Supervisor doubled it and passed it on to manager.
      Manager doubled it again and passed it on to board.
      Board approved it.
      To complete project only way it was done, to the end works had to put extra time in, overtime and weekends, to meet the time frame as presented to the board!
      Yes it does pay to be careful at times. 😉

      • Hans

        I know this anecdote/urban legend in another version:
        Programmer is asked how long it takes to change some software. He thinks one day, but to be on the safe side let’s say two days. Then all the doubling you describe happens and he gets eight days to do the job. He thinks” great: I get time to do all the stuff I never get around to normally”. So for seven days he does all the backlog work on his desk. On the eight day he starts with the software project, it takes two days and he delivers one day late.

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