Skeptical about renewable energy predictions?

In 1999, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Xcel Energy to double its renewable energy commitment to one gigawatt, it was a pretty big deal. Minnesota’s market for renewable power—and the couple billion dollars in associated capital costs—was big news nationwide, even if the increase was spread out over a decade. How wrong we were to think that a $2 billion renewable energy investment would be ambitious. Today, the region supports more than $20 billion.

But we weren’t the only ones being timid in our predictions of renewable electricity’s potential. The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century just released the 2012 Renewables Global Status Report, a study that outlines many experts’ predictions about renewable energy from 1996 to 2002. These experts were way off on how wind and solar electricity would grow in the last decade. I think you’ll enjoy this list, and I hope it inspires.


– In 2000, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its World Energy Outlook, predicting that non-hydro renewable energy would comprise 3 percent of global energy by 2020. That benchmark was reached in 2008.

– In 2000, IEA projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind energy worldwide by 2010, but the estimate was off by a factor of 7. Wind power produced 200 gigawatts in 2010, an investment of approximately $400 billion.

– In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that total U.S. wind power capacity could reach 10 gigawatts by 2010. The country reached that amount in 2006 and quadrupled between 2006 and 2010.

– In 2000, the European Wind Energy Association predicted Europe would have 50 gigawatts of wind by 2010 and boosted that estimate to 75 two years later. Actually, 84 gigawatts of wind power were feeding into the European electric grid by 2012.

– In 2000, IEA estimated that China would have 2 gigwatts of wind power installed by 2010. China reached 45 gigawatts by the end of 2010. The IEA projected that China wind power in 2020 would be 3.7 gigawatts, but most projections now exceed 150 gigawatts, or 40 times more.


In 2000, total installed global photovoltaic solar energy capacity was 1.5 gigawatts, and most of it was off-the-grid, like solar on NASA satellites or on cabins in the mountains or woods.

In 2002, a top industry analyst predicted an additional 1 gigawatt annual market by 2010. The annual market in 2010 was 17 times that, at 17 gigawatts.

In 1996, the World Bank estimated 0.5 gigwatts of solar photovoltaic in China by 2020, but China reached almost double that mark—900 megawatts by 2010.

By Michael Noble,