There They Go Again: Energy Department Disses the Future of Renewables

Each year, the federal Energy Information Administration projects the nation’s electric power mix out to 2050. And every year, the agency gives short shrift to wind and solar power while forecasting continued heavy reliance on coal and natural gas. 

In 30 years, says the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020, coal and natural gas – unacceptably dangerous for public health and the climate – will still generate almost half of U.S. electricity. Another 12 percent is projected to come from risky nuclear reactors, which generate mountains of highly radioactive waste. That’s better than last year’s projection of 56 percent for coal and gas but still baffling to anyone paying attention to what’s happening in the real world.

The downplaying of renewables is particularly puzzling in light of the agency’s projection that by next year, renewables will surpass both coal and nuclear power – separately, not combined – as electricity sources. The EIA also projects that this year, more than three-fourths of all new additions to the electricity grid will be wind and solar installations.

So what’s up with the EIA’s bearish take on renewables?

In CleanTechnica, analyst Michael Barnard of TFIE Strategy writes about the EIA that it is:

… very poor at predicting the rapidly declining costs of wind and solar, very poor at predicting the rapidity of growth of those technologies and very poor at understanding that the existing technologies are fairly radically outcompeted. But you think that they would have figured out after a decade of publicly being humiliatingly wrong in their projections that they needed to change their methodologies.

The article walks through a detailed analysis of current trends and the outlook for coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables. It concludes with “a more likely scenario”: The 2050 electricity mix will include less than 1 percent from coal, less than 2 percent from nukes, less than 5 percent from natural gas and more than 90 percent from renewables.

Here is just a sample of indications that the EIA is far off the mark in its 2020 analysis:

  • The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that solar power will double in the next five years, generating enough electricity to power nearly 30 million homes.
  • According to the American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, last year electric utilities and businesses contracted for a record amount of wind power, which now powers the equivalent of 32 million homes.
  • Energy consultants Wood Mackenzie, as reported by S&P Global, expect U.S. wind power additions to reach a new high this year and expand by over 70 percent before the end of the decade.
  • The Solar Energy Industry Association estimates that solar power will double in the next five years, generating enough electricity to power nearly 30 million homes.

Amazingly, EIA also dismisses the prospects of the energy industry’s next rising star, offshore wind. In its most recent update of projects currently in the pipeline, the AWEA expects three times more offshore wind installed in 2026 than the EIA does in 2030. Dan Shreve, Wood Mackenzie's head of global wind energy research, told S&P Global that his firm expects "offshore to take off in the 2022-23 time frame.”

The EIA’s poor-mouthing of renewables is nothing new.

In response to last year’s projection, Dan Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, wrote in The Hill that the EIA’s 2015 analysis predicted it would take 25 years for the U.S. to reach 20,000 megawatts of solar power. Instead, that benchmark was reached in two years. Cohan also noted that the EIA’s 2017 forecast predicted the cost of solar power would be double the price that had already been achieved a year earlier.

As we wrote last year, the EIA’s downplaying of renewables can’t be tied to the Trump administration’s doomed schemes to prop up coal and nuclear power.

Rather, the agency’s skewed view conforms to the federal government’s longstanding support for an all-of-the-above energy policy that would keep dirty, expensive 20th-century energy sources operating alongside clean, safe, affordable renewable energy. That approach not only flies in the face of what’s happening in the energy market but also slows – and makes more expensive – the urgently needed transition to 100 percent renewables. 

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