When the US government says your next car will run on biofuel, don’t take it too seriously

Yes, we used to think this was the future too.
Yes, we used to think this was the future too.
Image: AP Photo/Axel Seidemann
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We still may not be driving flying cars in 2040—will we ever?—but it’s likely our rides will powered by natural gas.

That’s just one of the predictions in the US government’s yearly exercise in soothsaying known as the Annual Energy Outlook. This year’s report from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) is being released in dribs and dabs—the full volume will be available May 2—but among its predictions are that oil consumption will peak in 2019; vehicles will guzzle 25 times as much natural gas in 2040 as they do now; and California’s strict limits on carbon emissions will prompt a boom in biofuels to satisfy the state’s endless appetite for cars.

Take those predictions with rather large grain of salt, however. Renewable energy advocates have roundly—and often rightly—criticized the EIA’s forecasts for assuming the fossil-fuel past and present will continue into to the bright, if smoggy and hot, future. And even if the agency’s latest predictions are slightly less gung-ho about fossil fuels than they used to be, they don’t take into account the possibilities of major technological breakthroughs, geopolitical upheaval, or climate change catastrophe.

To get a sense of just how off-base these forecasts can be, we dug up the EIA’s Energy Outlook 2000, which prognosticated energy production and consumption in the now not-too-distant year 2020 (pdf).

Back in the waning days of the Clinton administration, shale gas could only be found in the fevered dreams of T. Boone Pickens and solar panels were for marijuana-growing hippies living off the grid in Northern California.

And if you took the EIA report as gospel, that’s the way things were going to stay. One of the big winners in the EIA’s renewable future would be something called “municipal solid waste,” i.e., trash. Solar barely rated a mention. (Today, it supplies 7,200 megawatts (MW) of carbon-free electricity.)

The report, released in December 1999, also predicted that by 2020 US wind power capacity would stand at a grand total of 3,660 MW. “Higher capital costs, lower output per kilowatt, and limited predictability put wind power at a disadvantage relative to natural gas and coal technologies,” the report stated.

We can safely say the EIA blew that one. Just in 2012 the US built 13,131 MW of wind energy capacity, bringing total installed capacity to 60,000 MW—over 16 times what the EIA predicted there would be in 2020.

And any flying cars in 2020 were supposed to have been coal-powered. In 1999, EIA forecast that 21,000 MW of new coal-fired capacity was to have come online. Again, not going to happen. In the first half of 2012, for instance, the US added an underwhelming 800 MW of coal power to the grid.