When We Talk about the Future of Renewables, We’re Only Right About Half the Time

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When I started at Renewable Energy World in the fall of 2007 as a part-time news editor, the year 2020 seemed eons away. At that time, it was easy to write about how much of a particular region’s electricity would be supplied by renewable energy by 2020, because even though the numbers were very small in 2008, with 2020 so far away, predictions seemed easily plausible. But here we are in 2018, just two years away from the big 2020. And so, to kick off 2018, I went back and re-read what experts were predicting for renewable energy in 2020. Here’s what I found – click on any of published links to see the original articles:

Wind EU: [Published March 2009]“The European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) has increased its latest targets for installed wind capacity from 180 gigawatts (GW) to 230 GW by 2020.”

Reality Check: 230 GW of installed wind capacity in Europe might be a stretch however the industry could get pretty darn close. According to recent statistics the EU is sitting with about 167 GW of wind installed capacity at the end of 2017. Our wind outlook offers the GWECs prediction of about 14 GW of installed capacity being added in 2018 and 2019 which would bring 2020 to about 195 GW. Not bad, EWEA.

Wind China: [Published June 2008] “Some experts are estimating that by 2010, the total installed capacity for wind power generation in China will reach 20 GW and that by 2020 China’s installed base of wind power will total 100 GW.”

Reality Check: Boy, did we underestimate China. At the end of 2016, China had 169 GW of installed wind capacity and at a rate of about 20 GW per year, we can expect that China’s installed wind capacity in 2020 will be more than double what the 2008 experts were predicting. (However, curtailment is still a big issue in the country.)

Global Concentrating Solar: [Published May 2009] “Global Concentrated Solar Power Industry to Reach 25 GW by 2020.”

Reality Check: One of the most interesting discoveries I made in my research was that back in 2008, we were barely writing about solar PV, even though it dominates the headlines today. And storage was nowhere to be found. We were however writing about CSP and Thin-Film (see the next entry). And this one was not accurate at all. CSP hasn’t made nearly the gains experts thought it would back in 2009. Today the global installed capacity of CSP sits at about 5 GW and I don’t see 20 GW of it coming online in 2 years.

Thin-film PV: [Published April 2009] “The proportion of thin-film technologies in newly installed systems is expected to increase to at least 20–30 percent by 2020.”

Reality Check: Um, no. This prediction is so far off the mark, it’s almost comical. Again, back in 2009, we didn’t foresee the explosive growth of solar PV — in fact, there was a shortage of silicon that was scaring the heck out of the solar industry, with skyrocketing raw material prices. Bets were being placed on thin-film because it didn’t rely on silicon. Alas, the shortage was quickly resolved and crystalline silicon PV took the vast majority of market share. According to Paula Mints’ latest figures, thin-film technology makes up about 5 percent of the solar market today. And as China continues to pump out silicon PV, that percentage is only expected to decrease at time goes on.

Germany Jobs: [Published April 2008] “According to revised government figures, as many as 400,000 people could be employed in the renewable energy industry in Germany by 2020.”

Reality Check: Not a bad estimate. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s 2017 jobs report, Germany has about 334,000 people working in the renewable energy industry now. It doesn’t seem all that much of a stretch that it would add 66,000 jobs in the sector in the next two years.

Offshore wind in Germany: [Published Nov 2008] “The minister also emphasized Germany’s plans to have 10,000 MW offshore capacity operational by 2020.”

Reality Check: Well plans are not predictions but at the time 10 GW of offshore wind seemed a lofty goal, and it proved to be insurmountable. That goal was reset to 6.5 GW by 2020 in 2013 and that one looks very achievable. At the end of 2017, by most estimates, Germany’s offshore wind installed capacity was just over 5.6 GW.

Islands and Renewables [Published July 2009] “Tuvalu Sets Goal of 100 Percent Clean Energy by 2020.”

Reality Check: Again, goals are not predictions but Tuvalu has a couple of very compelling reasons to want to go to 100 percent renewables. Not only is the island most at risk of sinking due to sea-level rise (a consequence of a warmer ocean and melting ice caps) but as an island, it also relies on costly fuel imports for electricity. The country realized that 2020 was not going to work and re-set the goal to 100 percent renewables by 2025. In May 2017, Truvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga in a presentation to the 73rd UNESCAP Commission said that the country was getting 30 percent of its power from solar and is exploring the use of other renewables.

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