Energy Experts are Hilariously Bad at Forecasting Solar Installations
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Experts are Hilariously Bad at Forecasting Solar Installations

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For the latest data on the world’s energy markets, organizations such as the IEA (International Energy Agency) and the EIA (Energy Information Administration) are crucial sources. Every year, investors and entire industries rely on their reporting on energy supply and demand, as well as their forecasts going forward.

However, these organizations tend to be better at some things than others. For example, in terms of summing up past and current data on what is going on in the world, they generally do a pretty good job. We referenced their numbers when we looked at the changing anatomy of U.S. oil imports, or when showing the decline in coal use over recent years.

In other situations, such as trying to extrapolate numbers on current trends or predicting the tipping point of technologies, things get a bit dicier. Forecasting the roll-out of solar, in particular, has proved to be a daunting challenge for these organizations over the years.

Global Solar Installations

Before we dive in, we should make one thing clear: it’s notoriously difficult to make these types of predictions, and we do not envy the position of these researchers in any sense.

That being said, as shown in this chart from Auke Hoekstra, forecasts for annual global solar installations by the IEA have been egregiously bad for over a decade.

IEA Solar Predictions for Global Installations

Forecasts from the IEA are pulled from their World Energy Outlook (WEO) reports, which are published each year. Meanwhile, the “PV History” line above is the actual data for photovoltaic (PV) installations each year.

Again, it’s extremely difficult to make such forecasts, and these organizations tend to be conservative with their outlooks. However, it’s pretty evident that they’ve missed a pretty significant trend here.

U.S. Solar Installations

Maybe the U.S. government can do better?

Here’s a look at forecasts by the EIA for annual energy production from solar in the U.S. over many decades, courtesy of Steffen Christensen:

EIA solar forecasts for U.S.

This one’s more interesting. Instead of counting out solar each and every year, the EIA has had changing attitudes towards solar over time.

The projection from 1979 seems to actually be the most accurate – but the ones from 1994-2011 skip any premise of a solar boom entirely. As we get closer to present day, forecasts get more accurate, but are still too conservative (2013, 2015).

Hindsight is 20/20

It’s easy for us to be armchair critics, but it is not fair to rag on these organizations too much.

Here’s the trend they missed that made all the difference:

Costs of Solar Cells

Curious to see how other people have fared in making predictions on technology throughout history?

Here’s a timeline of failed tech predictions that will humble any forecaster.

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Energy

Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams

Hydroelectric dams generate 40% of the world’s renewable energy, the largest of any type. View this infographic to learn more.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Hydroelectric Dams

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Did you know that hydroelectricity is the world’s biggest source of renewable energy? According to recent figures from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it represents 40% of total capacity, ahead of solar (28%) and wind (27%).

This type of energy is generated by hydroelectric power stations, which are essentially large dams that use the water flow to spin a turbine. They can also serve secondary functions such as flow monitoring and flood control.

To help you learn more about hydropower, we’ve visualized the five largest hydroelectric dams in the world, ranked by their maximum output.

Overview of the Data

The following table lists key information about the five dams shown in this graphic, as of 2021. Installed capacity is the maximum amount of power that a plant can generate under full load.

CountryDamRiverInstalled Capacity
(gigawatts)
Dimensions
(meters)
🇨🇳 ChinaThree Gorges DamYangtze River22.5181 x 2,335
🇧🇷 Brazil / 🇵🇾 ParaguayItaipu DamParana River14.0196 x 7,919
🇨🇳 ChinaXiluodu DamJinsha River13.9286 x 700
🇧🇷 BrazilBelo Monte DamXingu River11.290 X 3,545
🇻🇪 VenezuelaGuri DamCaroni River10.2162 x 7,426

At the top of the list is China’s Three Gorges Dam, which opened in 2003. It has an installed capacity of 22.5 gigawatts (GW), which is close to double the second-place Itaipu Dam.

In terms of annual output, the Itaipu Dam actually produces about the same amount of electricity. This is because the Parana River has a low seasonal variance, meaning the flow rate changes very little throughout the year. On the other hand, the Yangtze River has a significant drop in flow for several months of the year.

For a point of comparison, here is the installed capacity of the world’s three largest solar power plants, also as of 2021:

  • Bhadla Solar Park, India: 2.2 GW
  • Hainan Solar Park, China: 2.2 GW
  • Pavagada Solar Park, India: 2.1 GW

Compared to our largest dams, solar plants have a much lower installed capacity. However, in terms of cost (cents per kilowatt-hour), the two are actually quite even.

Closer Look: Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam is an engineering marvel, costing over $32 billion to construct. To wrap your head around its massive scale, consider the following facts:

  • The Three Gorges Reservoir (which feeds the dam) contains 39 trillion kg of water (42 billion tons)
  • In terms of area, the reservoir spans 400 square miles (1,045 square km)
  • The mass of this reservoir is large enough to slow the Earth’s rotation by 0.06 microseconds

Of course, any man-made structure this large is bound to have a profound impact on the environment. In a 2010 study, it was found that the dam has triggered over 3,000 earthquakes and landslides since 2003.

The Consequences of Hydroelectric Dams

While hydropower can be cost-effective, there are some legitimate concerns about its long-term sustainability.

For starters, hydroelectric dams require large upstream reservoirs to ensure a consistent supply of water. Flooding new areas of land can disrupt wildlife, degrade water quality, and even cause natural disasters like earthquakes.

Dams can also disrupt the natural flow of rivers. Other studies have found that millions of people living downstream from large dams suffer from food insecurity and flooding.

Whereas the benefits have generally been delivered to urban centers or industrial-scale agricultural developments, river-dependent populations located downstream of dams have experienced a difficult upheaval of their livelihoods.
– Richter, B.D. et al. (2010)

Perhaps the greatest risk to hydropower is climate change itself. For example, due to the rising frequency of droughts, hydroelectric dams in places like California are becoming significantly less economical.

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Energy

What are the Benefits of Fusion Energy?

One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies.

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General-Fusion_Benefits-of-Fusion
The following content is sponsored by General Fusion

What are The Benefits of Fusion Energy?

As the world moves towards net-zero emissions, sustainable and affordable power sources are urgently needed by humanity.

One of the most promising technologies, fusion, has attracted the attention of governments and private companies like Chevron and Google. In fact, Bloomberg Intelligence has estimated that the fusion market may eventually be valued at $40 trillion.

In this infographic sponsored by General Fusion, we discuss the benefits of fusion as a clean energy source.

The Ultimate Source of Energy 

Fusion powers the sun and the stars, where the immense force of gravity compresses and heats hydrogen plasma, fusing it into helium and releasing enormous amounts of energy. Here on Earth, scientists use isotopes of hydrogen—deuterium and tritium—to power fusion plants.

Fusion energy offers a wide range of benefits, such as:

1. Ample resources:

Both atoms necessary for nuclear fusion are abundant on Earth: deuterium is found in seawater, while tritium can be produced from lithium.

2. Sustainable

Energy-dense generation like fusion minimizes land use needs and can replace aging infrastructure like old power plants. 

3. Clean

There are no CO₂ or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process.

4. Scalable

With limited expected regulatory burden or export controls, fusion scales effectively with a small land footprint that can be located close to cities.

5. Safety advantage

Unlike atomic fission, fusion does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. Its radiation profile is similar to widely used medical and industrial applications like cyclotrons for cancer treatment.

6. Reliable

Fusion energy is on-demand and independent from the weather, making it an excellent option in a dependable portfolio for power generation.

Commercializing Fusion Energy

More than 130 countries have now set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050. Meanwhile, global energy demand is expected to increase by 47% in the next 30 years.

While renewables like wind and solar are intermittent and need a baseload source of clean energy to supplement them, fusion, when commercially implemented, could deliver clean, abundant, reliable, and cost-competitive energy. 

General Fusion seeks to transform the world’s energy supply with the most practical path to commercial fusion energy. Click here to learn more.

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