EIA defense of renewable energy forecasts sheds light on fossil fuels PR battle

Renewable boosters – trying to persuade American public wind and solar power cheaper than fossil fuels- criticize EIA’s too conservative forecasts

A war is raging in the wonkish world of energy data statistics between clean energy advocates and the US Energy Information Administration. Yesterday, the EIA launched a major counter-offensive.

EIAThe federal government source for all things energy data has been taking fire for years now from wind and solar boosters, who complain about accuracy of data and too conservative forecasts of renewable energy adoption.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll quote one critic, Jigar Shah, co-founder at Generate Capital Inc.,who in 2014 co-authored a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz demanding an inquiry into EIA studies and forecasts: “Wind Energy installations are driven primarily by dramatic cost reductions and renewable energy mandates in over 20 states.  Solar power is cost effective with only the 10% permanent tax credit, but EIA says that is absolutely not possible.  It is like they don’t know how to do math.”

Shah is not alone. Some heavy hitters have been lining up in the Scientific American, Clean Technica, Greentech Media, and other publications to criticize the EIA.

Here is how the EIA responded: “EIA has found that the information used to support recent critiques is often selective and misleading, and that the broad conclusions drawn from that information are therefore exaggerated, fail to account for key aspects of the projections, or are factually incorrect.”


Photo; CPS Energy.

EIA analysts lay out a convincing defense against accusations that EIA data do not accurately track wind and solar generation (particularly distributed solar PV), projections “consistently” and “significantly” underestimate additions of renewables capacity, and estimates for the cost of renewable capacity such as wind and solar are out-of-date and not representative of current market costs.

Read the report if you’re interested in the details. Shah wasn’t convinced, neither will other renewables boosters, but at the very least the debate isn’t one-sided anymore.

Make no mistake, this squabble has important implications for the broader American energy debate.

Renewables boosters, supported by environmental groups and plenty of concerned citizens, are on a mission to convince voters and policy makers that wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and natural gas, that the national power generation system is ready for 100 per cent renewables, and “fossil fuels should be left in the ground.”

Critics of renewables boosters, including me, disagree and argue that while cost curves are still dropping, wind and solar still require subsidies to compete against other fuels. Further, we also argue that ancillary technologies like smart grids and utility-scale battery storage are still in their infancy and not ready for primetime.


Prof. Vaclav Smil, author of numerous books on energy.

The debate here is about the pace of the transition to renewables. I side with energy scholar Vaclav Smil, who says that energy transitions happen at about three per cent annually because energy systems are complex, mission critical, and the technology simply doesn’t change at the rate of, say, smartphones or computers.

Go slow and get it right, is the mantra. And in the case of energy transitions, that probably means 50 to 75 years. For renewables boosters, who are more often than not also climate change activists, such a timeframe is simply not acceptable.

Activists are pursing a two-pronged strategy: Scaring the American public with increasingly dire predictions of the consequences of climate change and trying to convince them that renewables are ready now to replace fossil fuels.

The math disputes between the EIA and its critics probably aren’t going to be resolved any time soon, judging by the early responses from Shah and others.

But the real issue here is the way in which this study is spun by its detractors and supporters in the media and social media debate over fossil fuels vs. renewable energy.

The lesson for my readers is don’t take the boosters slash critics at face value. As the EIA makes clear in its report, there is another side to this fight.



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