US Government Massively Underestimated National Solar Capacity

US Energy Information Administration EIA solar
Credit: UC Davis College of Engineering, Flickr Creative Commons

Predictions always involve a certain level of guesswork, but when the US Energy Information Administration estimated in 2006 how much solar capacity would be installed by 2016, the number wasn’t even close. The EIA had underestimated the capacity by 4,813%, an analysis by Statista found.

Using data from the NRDC and the EIA, Statista data journalist Martin Armstrong created an infographic showing that the US is smashing its clean energy targets. Comparing 2006 predictions with actual 2016 results, Armstrong found that carbon dioxide emissions were 24% lower than predicted, total energy consumption was 17% lower, and coal power generation was 45% lower than the EIA anticipated. Wind and solar power generation was 383% higher than predicted.

Installed wind capacity was 361% higher — 82 GW compared to the 17.8 GW prediction. But the most striking is installed solar capacity. The EIA said it would be 0.8 GW, when in reality it was 82 GW last year. Part of the reason for these differences could be the rapid advancement of technology over the past decade, which would have been difficult for the EIA to anticipate.

Quartz’s Michael J. Coren argues that the 10-year prediction error for solar is part of a larger trend. “The EIA regularly underestimates the growth in renewables but overestimates US fossil-fuel consumption,” he wrote. “These estimates matter because they form the basis for actions by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.”

Armstrong’s data analysis comes at a time when large corporations are working to reach ambitious environmental goals, particularly around adding cheap renewable energy. Solar installations are unlikely to slow down. Recently, the Seattle startup LevelTen Energy raised $6.8 million from investors for their platform, which helps make it easier for smaller corporations to purchase renewables like solar.

“Companies want to buy renewables and developers want to sell renewables,” LevelTen Energy CEO Bryce Smith told Xconomy.com.

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