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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

Mapped: The World’s Biggest Oil Discoveries Since 1868

Since 1868, there had been 1,232 oil discoveries over 500 million barrels of oil. This map plots these discoveries to reveal global energy hot spots.

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Mapped: The World’s Biggest Oil Discoveries Since 1868

Oil and gas discoveries excite markets and nations with the prospect of profits, tax revenues, and jobs. However, geological processes did not distribute them equally throughout the Earth’s crust and their mere presence does not guarantee a windfall for whatever nation under which they lie.

Entire economies and nations have been built on the discovery and exploitation of oil and gas, while some nations have misused this wealth─or projected growth just never materialized.

Today’s chart comes to us from research compiled by World Bank economist Jim Cust and Natural Resource Governance Institute economist David Mihalyi and it plots major oil discoveries since 1868.

The 20 Biggest Oil Discoveries

This map includes 1,232 discoveries of recoverable reserves over 500 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) From 1868 to 2010.

The discoveries cluster in certain parts of the world, covering 46 countries, and are of significant magnitude for each country’s economy. The average discovery is worth 1.4% of a country’s GDP today, based on the cash value from their production or net present value (NPV).

Of the total 1,232 discoveries, these are the 20 largest oil and gas fields:

FieldOnshore/OffshoreLocationDiscoveryProduction startRecoverable oil, past and future (billion barrels)
Ghawar FieldOnshoreSaudi Arabia1948195188-104
Burgan FieldOnshoreKuwait1937194866-72
Gachsaran FieldOnshoreIran1927193066
Mesopotamian Foredeep BasinOnshoreKuwaitn/an/a66-72
Bolivar Coastal FieldOnshoreVenezuela1917192230-32
Safaniya FieldOffshoreKuwait/Saudi Arabia1951195730
Esfandiar FieldOffshoreIran1965n/a30
Kashagan FieldOffshoreKazakhstan2000201330
Aghajari FieldOnshoreIran1938194028
Tengiz FieldOnshoreKazakhstan1979199326-40
Ahvaz FieldOnshoreIran1953195425
Upper Zakum FieldOffshoreAbu Dhabi, UAE1963196721
Cantarell FieldOffshoreMexico1976198118-35
Rumaila FieldOnshoreIraq1953195417
Romashkino FieldOnshoreRussia Volga-Ural1948194916-17
Marun FieldOnshoreIran1963196616
Daqing FieldOnshoreChina1959196016
Shaybah FieldOnshoreSaudi Arabia1998199815
West Qurna FieldOnshoreIraq1973201215-21
Samotlor FieldOnshore
Russia, West Siberia
1965196914-16

The location of these deposits reveals a certain pattern to geopolitical flashpoints and their importance to the global economy.

While these discoveries have brought immense advantages in the form of cheap fuel and massive revenues, they have also altered and challenged how nations govern their natural wealth.

The Future of Resource Wealth: A Curse or a Blessing?

A ‘presource curse’ could follow in the wake of the discovery, whereby predictions of projected growth and feelings of euphoria turn into disappointment.

An oil discovery can impose detrimental consequences on an economy long before a single barrel leaves the ground. Ideally, a discovery should increase the economic output of a country that claims the oil. However, after major discoveries, the projected growth sometimes does not always materialize as predicted.

Getting from discovery to sustained prosperity depends on a number of steps. Countries must secure investment to develop a project to production, and government policy must respond by preparing the economy for an inflow of investment and foreign currency. However, this is a challenging prospect, as the appetite for these massive projects appears to be waning.

In a world working towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, what will happen to countries that depend on oil wealth when demand begins to dwindle?

Countries can no longer assume their oil and gas resources will translate into reliable wealth — instead, it is how you manage what you have now that counts.

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Chart of the Week

Which Companies Are Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, over ⅓ of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions can be traced back to just 20 fossil fuel companies. Who are the biggest contributors?

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20 Companies Responsible For the Most Carbon Emissions?

Since 1965, it’s estimated over 1.35 million metric tons (MtCO₂e) of greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere—and over a third can be traced back to just 20 companies.

This week’s chart draws on a dataset from the Climate Accountability Institute, and highlights the companies which have been responsible for the most carbon emissions in the past half-century.

The Sum of their Carbon Emissions

Between 1965-2017, the top 20 companies have contributed 480,169 MtCO₂e in total carbon emissions, or 35% of cumulative global emissions. This whopping amount is mostly from the combustion of their products—each company on this chart deals in fossil fuels.

The largest contributor? Saudi Aramco, the national petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Aramco actually comes in first on another list as well—it’s the most profitable company, making over $304 million daily.

However, this financial gain came at a significant cost: the state-owned giant’s operations have resulted in 59,262 MtCO₂e in carbon emissions since 1965. To put that into perspective, this total is more than six times China’s emissions in 2017 alone (9,838 MtCO₂e).

Explore the full list of companies by location, who owns them, and their total 1965–2017 emissions count below:

CompanyCountryOwnershipAll Emissions, MtCO₂e
Total Emissions480,169 MtCO₂e
Saudi Aramco🇸🇦 Saudi ArabiaState-owned59,262
Chevron🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned43,345
Gazprom🇷🇺 RussiaState-owned43,230
Exxon Mobil🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned41,904
National Iranian Oil Co.🇮🇷 IranState-owned35,658
BP🇬🇧 UKInvestor-owned34,015
Royal Dutch Shell🇳🇱 NetherlandsInvestor-owned31,948
Coal India🇮🇳 IndiaState-owned23,124
Pemex🇲🇽 MexicoState-owned22,645
Petroleus de Venezuela🇻🇪 VenezuelaState-owned15,745
PetroChina🇨🇳 ChinaState-owned15,632
Peabody Energy🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,385
ConocoPhillips🇺🇸 U.S.Investor-owned15,229
Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.🇦🇪 UAEState-owned13,840
Kuwait Petroleum Corp.🇰🇼 KuwaitState-owned13,479
Iraq National Oil Co.🇮🇶 IraqState-owned12,596
Total SA🇫🇷 FranceInvestor-owned12,352
Sonatrach🇩🇿 AlgeriaState-owned12,302
BHP Billiton🇦🇺 AustraliaInvestor-owned9,802
Petrobras🇧🇷 BrazilState-owned8,676

A Greener Business Model?

According to the researchers, all the companies that show up in today’s chart bear some responsibility for knowingly accelerating the climate crisis even after proven scientific evidence.

In fact, U.S.-based Exxon Mobil is currently on trial for misleading investors: the company downplayed the effect of climate change on its profitability, while internal calculations proved to be much larger. It also sowed public doubt on the immense impacts of rising greenhouse gas levels on the planet.

Growing sustainability and environmental concerns threaten the viability of old business models for these corporations, causing many to pivot away from the fossil fuel focus. Take BP for example—originally named British Petroleum, the company embraced “Beyond Petroleum” as its new rallying cry. More recently, it launched a carbon footprint calculator and is committed to keeping its carbon emissions flat into 2025.

However, the Climate Accountability Institute argues that more can still be done, with the researchers calling for these companies to reduce their fossil fuel production in the near future.

Continued pressure on these “Big Oil” companies to peak their carbon emissions, and urgently increase their renewable energy investment, may help curb the climate crisis before it’s too late.

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