The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has often come under fire for its outlooks, both short- and long-term, as it has repeatedly under-represented the growing role of renewable energy technologies in the future energy mix, and with its recently-published Annual Energy Outlook 2019 the EIA has once again missed the mark, despite finally recognising the growing role of large-scale solar.
The EIA’s history of projections is spotty at best, time and again failing to acknowledge on-the-ground evidence showing that the fossil fuel industry is diminishing and that renewable energy technologies are increasing in demand. Released on January 24, the EIA’ s Annual Energy Outlook 2019 is, in some ways, a step in the right direction. For example, the EIA now expects renewable electricity to be the second-largest source of electricity generation by 2050, with wind and solar making up 90% of this generating capacity.
“The AEO highlights the increasing role of renewable energy in the U.S. generation mix,” said EIA Administrator Linda Capuano. “Solar and wind generation are driving much of the growth. In fact, our Reference case projects that renewables will grow to become a larger share of U.S. electric generation than nuclear and coal in less than a decade.”
Specifically, the EIA now expects solar PV capacity to increase from approximately 30 gigawatts (GW) in 2018 to 215.5 GW in 2050 — around 40 GW more than it had in its outlook a year ago. However, conversely, the EIA now expects small-scale solar generation across the commercial, industrial, and residential sectors to grow from 24 GW in 2018 to only 186 GW in 2050 — down 65 GW on its own projections a year ago, and ignoring significant movement towards clean energy generation in these sectors.
“What’s really remarkable here is that solar is the number one new source of electric generating capacity through 2050, accounting for about 46% of new capacity,” explained Justin Baca, vice president of markets & research for SEIA, who spoke via email. “Historically, EIA has underestimated solar, which makes the scale of their forecasts even more impressive.”
Most puzzling, however, and representative of the huge grain of salt with which we should take the EIA’s figures, is its treatment of the US wind energy industry over the next 30 years. As can be seen below, it would appear the EIA is concerned the wind will stop blowing post-2020.
Annual electricity generating capacity additions and retirements
Specifically, according to the EIA’s projections, wind capacity — which sits at around the 94 GW mark at the end of 2018, though this figure will likely be refined and finalized in the coming weeks — will increase to 117 GW by the end of 20121, will add another GW in 2022, and then add only 16.61 GW in the following 28 years to top out at 134.71 by 2050.
Even more absent-minded and seemingly oblivious to not only recent trends but recent announcements, the EIA expects the offshore wind sector to hit 0.06 GW (60 megawatts) in 2021 and stay there until 2050.
For comparison, the American Wind Energy Association currently shows just over 90 GW worth of wind capacity as of the end of 2017, over 20 GW of projects currently under construction and a pipeline of advanced-development projects of 17 GW. This, on its own — were no more capacity be added ever again — accounts for at least 127 GW, and doesn’t include the 4.1 GW of offshore wind leases which were only awarded in December off the coast of Massachusetts. It similarly doesn’t include the planned 1.1 GW by 2030 of offshore capacity New Jersey is looking to develop, the 2 GW by 2028 Virginia is eyeing, and the newly-announced New York offshore wind target of 9 GW by 2035.
In fact, in December, power analysts Wood Mackenzie predicted offshore wind in the US to sit around the 10 GW mark by 2027.
“This isn’t the first time EIA has misrepresented the cost reduction trajectory of wind and other renewables, effectively assuming wind will experience little to no future cost declines,” said John Hensley, Senior Director, Research & Analytics, AWEA, speaking via email. “The cost of US wind power has fallen 69% since 2009 and further cost improvements are expected thanks to innovative technology and better wind turbine performance. Wind power consistently beats EIA’s forecasts and all indicators point to a repeat performance.”
Despite all this, however, and compared to one another, then, the future of solar and wind in the United States, according to the EIA, should look something like this:
It’s worth acknowledging that the EIA has made some progress — note the increase in solar projections, and add in its coming to grips with US coal retirements. However, the size of its missteps reveal not just a noticeable blind spot, but seeming willful ignorance to what is happening in the country.
Finally, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) raised concerns, not with the EIA’s reporting but more with the United States reliance on fossil fuels, specifically natural gas, moving through the coming decades.
“The report makes it very clear that the nation’s energy system continues to undergo an incredible transformation—where renewables are going to be a leading source of energy over the long term,” explained Steve Clemmer, director of energy research and analysis at UCS.
“But when you read the report you realize that absent swift and aggressive policy action, we are far from achieving the carbon reductions needed to curtail climate change.
“The report shows after having declined for the last several years, the U.S. power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions will level out after 2022 due to an increased reliance on natural gas and the phasing out of federal tax credits for renewables.
“EIA predicts that nuclear plants will continue to struggle economically primarily because of cheap natural gas. Replacing nuclear plants with natural gas also contributes to higher emissions as seen in EIA’s forecast. As a recent UCS analysis found, keeping safely operating nuclear plants running until they can be replaced with energy efficiency, renewables, and other low carbon technologies would help prevent this outcome.
“Notably, in my 20-plus years of looking at the EIA’s annual report, this is the first time I’ve seen the national report not include projections for total energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. From a climate perspective, it’s critical to know how many tons are being released and how much we need to reduce emissions over time. While this data is available online, it begs the question of why the EIA left this essential information out.
“The big take away from this report is that business can’t continue as usual because EIA modeled that scenario and it shows the market won’t rapidly decarbonize the power sector, but strong climate and energy policies will. We need strong policies such as a national price on carbon or a low-carbon electricity standard to phase out fossil fuels more quickly and to do our part to address the global climate crisis.” – Clemmer