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Renewable Energy


This artificial waterfall will power Olympics 2016

This is Rio de Janeiro right now: "Hey, London, nice job with the terrifying brain slug mascots and logo that evokes cartoon incest. We've also been doing some design innovation for our Olympics! Yeah, we just made this giant beautiful waterfall that will generate renewable energy for the Olympic Village. But yours is good too!"

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Medal-less Germany generates 25 percent of electricity from renewables

This is the German flag. It has not yet been raised at the London Olympics.

Germany now generates 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The nation has not, however, won any Olympic medals.

Germany produced 67.9 billion kilowatt hours of renewable energy in the first half of 2012, a record high and an increase of 19.5 percent from the same period last year, industry figures showed on Thursday. …

Wind energy was the largest contributor of green power, accounting for 9.2 percent of all energy output, BDEW said.

Biomass, or material acquired from living organisms, accounted for 5.7 percent and solar technology for 5.3 percent.

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What I left out when I wrote about lowball renewable energy projections

No one likes to be left out. (Photo by charamelody.)

Last week, I highlighted some energy projections from 2000 or so that substantially underestimated the growth of renewables. Mainly I wanted an excuse to repost Michael Noble's list. So as not to merely thieve, I added a few musings of my own, reflecting my ongoing obsessions with the dynamics of distributed energy and the values-based assumptions buried in economic models. I didn't think about it all that much, to be honest, nor did I aspire to offer a comprehensive account of why projections fail. (The much-more-qualified Nate Silver has a book on that subject coming out in September.)

Turns out, though, the post was quite popular! It has now been linked to by both David Leonhardt and Paul Krugman of The New York Times. Normally I'd be thrilled, but the post in question has the unfortunate feature of being, um, wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but it nibbles around the edges and misses the main course.

Why were projections of renewable energy growth from 2000 so woefully off the mark? The main answer, which I passed over in my post, is policy.

The International Energy Agency and U.S. Energy Information Administration do not try to predict policy changes; they project based on the current policy regime. In 2000, there wasn't much in the way of clean-energy policy. Since then, however, there's been a great deal, and those policy changes are the biggest driver of renewable energy growth.

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Why do ‘experts’ always lowball clean-energy projections?

Highballs are better than lowballs.

[UPDATE: I left something very important out of this post. So when you're done with it, read this.]

Last month, Michael Noble of Fresh Energy put up a fascinating list of projections made by energy experts around 2000 or so. (I got there via Brad Plumer.) Suffice to say, the projections did not fare well. They were badly wrong, and all in the same direction -- they underestimated the growth of renewable energy. It's worth quoting the whole list:


  • In 2000, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its World Energy Outlook, predicting that non-hydro renewable energy would comprise 3 percent of global energy by 2020. That benchmark was reached in 2008.
  • In 2000, IEA projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind power worldwide by 2010, but the estimate was off by a factor of 7. Wind power produced 200 gigawatts in 2010, an investment of approximately $400 billion.
  • In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that total U.S. wind power capacity could reach 10 gigawatts by 2010. The country reached that amount in 2006 and quadrupled between 2006 and 2010.
  • In 2000, the European Wind Energy Association predicted Europe would have 50 gigawatts of wind by 2010 and boosted that estimate to 75 two years later. Actually, 84 gigawatts of wind power were feeding into the European electric grid by 2012.
  • In 2000, IEA estimated that China would have 2 gigawatts of wind power installed by 2010. China reached 45 gigawatts by the end of 2010. The IEA projected that China wind power in 2020 would be 3.7 gigawatts, but most projections now exceed 150 gigawatts, or 40 times more.


  • In 2000, total installed global photovoltaic solar capacity was 1.5 gigawatts, and most of it was off-the-grid, like solar on NASA satellites or on cabins in the mountains or woods.
  • In 2002, a top industry analyst predicted an additional 1 gigawatt annual market by 2010. The annual market in 2010 was 17 times that at 17 gigawatts.
  • In 1996, the World Bank estimated 0.5 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic in China by 2020, but China reached almost double that mark -- 900 megawatts -- by 2010.

What should we take from this?

Well, mainly that fossil-fuel energy was really cheap in 2000. Oil was about a third the price it is now, coal for electricity about half. That colored those projections. But that's a boring lesson. Let's speculate about some others.

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Spray-on solar windows use teeny tiny solar cells to capture energy

If the Internet has taught us anything, it is that everything is better when it is smaller. Kittens are better than cats. Cake pops are better than cakes. LEGO models of anything are pretty great, even if the full-sized version is pretty iffy (say, a meth lab).

Thus: Solar panels? Good. Teeny tiny solar cells? BETTER. Solar cells so tiny they can be sprayed onto windows? SO COOL.

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Power your laptop with your butt

Swedish designer Eddi Tornberg has turned the plight of modern workers -- sitting like lazy larvae in front of computer screens all day -- into a form of renewable energy. He uses the heat of our rear ends to create electricity. You’ll still die from sitting, but at least your energy bills will be lower!


Columnist: Millions for coal and oil, but not one more penny for clean energy

The Washington Post's Charles Lane has a column today in which he argues that the Obama administration's efforts to bolster clean energy is money "wasted," and that if government does "double down on clean energy, it’s the federal budget that will end up busted."

He's wrong.

Lane bases his arguments largely on a report released earlier this month by Brookings. "Clean Energy: Revisiting the Challenges of Industrial Policy" assesses the value of subsidies in bolstering a clean energy economy.

What Brookings found probably won't come as much of a surprise: Subsidizing clean energy initiatives is not always effective and is not the ideal way to bolster the sector. Instead of subsidies, the most market-efficient way to support clean energy is to internalize the costs of fossil fuel-based energy production. In other words, to build a system that -- among other things -- ends the ability of coal power producers to emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere where they will produce long-term costs in global warming and negative health impacts.

We tried this one way; it was called cap-and-trade. It was proposed by Republicans, then killed when Democrats began to champion it. Politically, it's a non-starter.

There's another way to do it: regulation. The EPA has issued several rules that would lower the allowable baseline for fossil fuel pollution. This is the sort of reception such efforts receive.

Which is why the fossil fuel industry and its allies focus on subsidies as a target. Subsidies are the primary support the government provides to clean energy. If you remove subsidies for clean energy projects, it's almost impossible for them to get a foothold in a crowded marketplace -- even if, over the long run, the technology will obviously be dominant and more cost-effective. If you came up with a new retail system, one that held real promise to vastly improve the consumer experience, how do you think you'd do if Walmart wanted to take you out?


Yes, the economy could soon run on (mostly) renewable power

Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a series of billboards sponsored by FORCE, a pro-coal lobby, make the argument for coal-based power by arguing that "wind dies" and "the sun sets." Coal wants you to think renewable energy is unstable, uneven.

Bad news, coal. A massive study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) modeled the impacts of a national energy grid with renewable power comprising between 30 and 90 percent of the mix -- including the requisite generation, transmission, and storage. In short:

The central conclusion of the analysis is that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States.

That quote scratches the surface of the NREL's findings, which follow collaboration with 110 contributors from 35 organizations inside and outside the government. (The list of abbreviations used in the report itself runs two-and-a-half pages.) Another study released in 2010 found that Europe could similarly make a transition to a renewable-heavy energy infrastructure.


Clean energy investments climb, along with Big Oil’s blood pressure

Chinese workers with a solar panel

Last year, global investment in renewable energy passed the quarter-trillion-dollar mark, hitting $257 billion, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In other words, investors spent about $38 for every human being on Earth. Someone needs to tell these job creators that they're ruining a lot of people's arguments about the green economy.


What’s really funny: Taking the oil industry’s word on its job creation

Oil industry apologists are giddy over a video of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) questioning a Department of Labor statistician about the various jobs that fall under the header of "green jobs." The crazy government includes crazy things under that heading! If you work for a facility that sells used clothing, that is a green job! If you drive a hybrid bus, green job! Garbage man! Green job!

The idea of categorizing green jobs is a new one, historically speaking. There were obviously green jobs a century ago, but people didn't look at them as being jobs that focused on sustainability or renewable energy production. The person who collected scrap metal and the person that built windmills just had regular old jobs. Green jobs only became a category tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the past few years, meaning that it was applied retroactively to a number of jobs that clearly fit the definition. I mean, if the person that drives a low-emission mass transit vehicle doesn't have a green job, then who does?