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.

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]

How the Chernobyl nuclear disaster led this woman to catch a wave

Inna Braverman

With wave power, it all seems pretty straightforward.

Waves come from the wind. Wind power is already a big-time clean-energy source (producing about 2.5 percent of the world’s electricity and growing). Water is 784 times denser than air, providing a lot more energy per cubic meter. Plus, people tend to live near coasts where the waves are: in the United States, for example, more than half the population lives within 50 miles of the ocean and all that potential energy.

It’s not straightforward. Complexities abound, ranging from where to site wave power installations (Offshore? Underwater? Free-floating or anchored?) to how to transmit the power they generate. And while not trivial, that’s the easy part. The hard part has to do with actually harnessing those wind-driven waves.

Wind blows in one direction, a relatively consistent, unidirectional power source, at least in the span of a few seconds. Waves are up and down and back and forth by nature. You can’t just miniaturize a wind turbine, sink it in the drink and fire up a toaster with water-born electrons.

So when Inna Braverman tells you that the company she co-founded — Tel Aviv, Israel-based Eco Wave Power — has come up with a really good way to harness those waves and fire up those toasters, know that it’s a big deal. [more]

Save the planet — procreate less!

Travis and Sadiye Rieder read a book with their 2-year-old daughter, Sinem, in their Maryland home

You can drive an electric vehicle powered by rooftop solar panels, replace your old appliances and light bulbs with energy-sipping versions, recycle compulsively, compost, give up meat, eschew air travel, buy used-everything, make your own sandals out of old tires. You can do these and all sorts of other things in your personal quest to lower your carbon footprint. Doing so will indeed mitigate to some tiny degree the climate change that, despite the best efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is hurtling us into a slew of potentially catastrophic unknowns as this century steams ahead.

But if you truly care about the climate and the future of a human civilization that developed in the current temperature regime, you could do something that has a much bigger impact: have one less kid. Or more precisely, says Johns Hopkins University philosopher and bioethicist Travis Rieder, one-half less kid. (Those who have reared children would recommend the top, rather than the bottom, half). [more]