U.S. renewable energy forecasters got it *slightly* wrong, turns out

Solar panel installation

Our (or technically Sunrun’s) solar panels during installation on July 13, 2010. The U.S. Energy Information Administration did not predict this.

The future didn’t look much like we thought it would.

I’m not talking about flying cars or colonies on Mars – although those two are looking promising at the moment.

In 2006, the U.S. Energy Information Administration laid out its predictions for renewable energy installations a decade hence. Its prognosticators extrapolated out the curves of past performance and divined 0.8 gigawatts of U.S. solar capacity by 2016. With wind, they were a bit more bullish, predicting 17 gigawatts of turbines spinning away. (A gigawatt is roughly what a big coal-fired power plant can produce, capacity factors aside.)

They were off by just a touch.

As InsideClimateNews reported yesterday, the United States had an installed solar capacity of about 37 gigawatts last year, about 46 times higher than the EIA had guessed. This country installed 14 gigawatts of solar in 2016 alone.

Solar grew from a tiny base. Wind had a better foothold in 2006, so the projection wasn’t quite as far off: the 82 gigawatts of turbines in the United States was merely five times higher than the EIA had estimated.

The 45 percent plunge in coal-fired generation wasn’t on their radar, either.

This isn’t about assailing the EIA. Who could have predicted the fracking boom, which turned utilities off to coal and on to natural gas? Or the rise of Solar City, Sunrun and other solar-panel leasing programs. The EIA had no more clue than I did that I’d have Sunrun panels on my roof as of 2010, or that Chinese manufacturers would come to produce panels so cheaply.

Perhaps proposed tariffs on those panels with grind the progress to a halt. Or, perhaps, Tesla’s Nevada battery gigafactory and the proliferation of electrified, self-driving cars will put panels on many more rooftops (and high-voltage plugs in many more garages), and stoking the trend further beyond the imaginations of actuarial bureaucrats. With regime change in 2020, national politics could become a tailwind again. Elon Musk, in addition to vastly increasing the odds of a future with humans on Mars, is betting big on batteries, electric cars and, yes, solar panels – Solar City’s 2016 merger with Tesla wasn’t on the EIA radar, either. Of course, Tesla itself didn’t mass-produce a car until 2008.

The lesson isn’t that Elon Musk’s business hunches should necessarily supplant the products of EIA forecasters. It’s that long-term forecasting, especially when it comes to something as complex as energy markets, is fraught. So there’s reason for skepticism – and, as the last decade’s numbers show, for optimism, too.

Hurricane Irma forecasts for Florida in pictures

 

Denver’s a long way from Hurricane Irma, but like everybody else I’ve been following it. With events like this one, it’s fascinating to check out the detailed Weather Underground forecasts. With Hurricane Harvey, I’d look at daily rain forecasts of 24 inches, stated without hint of how out-of-whack such a number is. With Irma approaching, the rains can be nuts, too, but the barometric pressure and, in particular, the wind speed curves are the most otherworldly. Key West, above, tops out at 101 mph. Compare this with what I’ve got in Denver today. The wind curve looks more insane, really, until you note the scale at left.

Most striking about Hurricane Irma is its sheer scope. The New York Times-published spaghetti model shows where it’s probably headed…

But these hurricane-track graphs don’t capture the immense scale of this storm.

NOAA’s GOES satellite image from a few minutes ago shows Irma dwarfing Cuba (as Hurricane Jose approaches from the East). The Weather Underground forecasts show how that scale will play out on the ground.

In Miami, technically the opposite side of the peninsula from Irma’s projected path, we get 87 mph winds and close to nine inches of rain.

Not much better in Fort Lauderdale.

In Fort Myers, on the Gulf side at just a bit higher latitude than Fort Lauderdale, it’s nastier.

Sanibel Island, where my wife and daughters are booked for a seashell-hunting adventure in late October, may be largely wiped away. The forecast has the center of the storm passing right over this patch of sand.

Up the Gulf Coast in Tampa, not a whole lot better, though better than Saint Petersburg.

Perhaps most awe-inspiring about this storm is its projected impact on the Atlantic side, 140 miles of peninsula separated from the above targets. Here’s Fort Lauderdale:

And Daytona Beach:

And Jacksonville:

Seventy-eight mph is a lot less than what Sanibel will suffer, but hit 78 on a highway, stick your hand out the window and think about how your roof would fare.

Central Florida isn’t all that much better off, though storm surges at least aren’t a worry. Here’s Lakeland:

And Orlando, if you’re wondering why Disney and Universal have shut down their theme parks:

Even Tallahassee will see 50 mph winds.

Really the only semi-quiet spot in the state looks to be Pensacola, which is basically in Alabama.

Which is all to say: this is a monster event of unique scale. It’s going to take a very long time to rebuild and recover from it.

Lucy McRae is thinking ahead. Like 2,500 years ahead

A lot of us have a hard enough time deciding what to scrounge up for dinner. Lucy McRae is thinking about life in the year 4,600.

She’s not alone. Science fiction writers have spent plenty of time imagining the distant future. But McRae is not a science fiction writer. She’s a science-fiction artist. She makes short films involving lots of silvery Mylar, condensation-soaked plastic, and edible body parts, among other things. They are gorgeous, cryptic, slow-moving and strange. [more]

Ancient craft yields storage medium of the future

An example tablet from a commission by the Kunst Historiches Museum Wien. (Courtesy of Martin Kunze)

The preservation of our collective story — so much of which is told in electronic pulses and stored in bits and bytes — may well hinge on the oldest of materials: clay.

It’s not just any clay. It’s a specially designed stoneware (the stuff of bathroom tiles) formed into 20-by-20 centimeter ceramic tablets. Martin Kunze, an Austrian ceramist and researcher, invented them, and once printed with snippets of science, politics, art, culture and much more, he stores them in a cavern in a salt mine in Hallstatt, deep in the Austrian Alps. The cavern, accessible via an 80 centimeter-wide tunnel, will naturally close up over time. There, what Kunze calls “the greatest time capsule ever” will wait for someone, someday, to find it. [more]

Robots kill, and they’re just getting started 

Gabriel Hallevy - When Robots Kill

For Gabriel Hallevy, one of the world’s leading legal thinkers in the emerging field of criminal law as it applies to intelligent machines, it started in a movie theater. The professor at Ono Academic College in Israel had already established himself as a prominent legal thinker in areas like criminal law, criminal justice, laws of evidence, and even corporate law when he sat down to watch I, Robot.

While the movie didn’t do much for Will Smith’s career, the seed it planted in Hallevy’s mind helped advance legal theory surrounding future crimes committed by intelligent machines to a point at which it’s now keeping pace with — if not out ahead of — the technologies themselves. [more]