Jan 30, 2020 - Energy & Environment

EIA predicts renewables will become largest U.S. electricity source before 2050

Reproduced from EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from EIA; Chart: Axios Visuals

The Energy Department's data arm is more favorable on renewables' long-term future than it was a year ago, but its central analysis might still be badly underestimating the tech's trajectory.

Driving the news: The Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook released yesterday shows power from renewables overtaking natural gas as the nation's largest electricity source in about 15 years.

Why it matters: It's a reversal of fortune from last year's version, which projected that in 2050 natural gas would still be the biggest power source with a 39% share and renewables at 31%.

  • “This shift has been strongly influenced by federal and state policies that help make renewables the fastest-growing source of electricity,” EIA administrator Linda Capuano said Wednesday, per Bloomberg.

The intrigue: One thing worth keeping in mind is that EIA's "reference" case assumes a static policy landscape going forward.

  • Predicting the future is hard! But it's safe to assume policy won't be static.
  • EIA also published alternative scenarios — a high-cost case and a low-cost case in which renewable costs in 2050 are 40% lower than the reference case.
  • In the low-cost case, renewables have a 50% share in 2050.

But, but, but: Renewables' growth has outpaced EIA projections for many years.

  • "I do think that the [EIA] numbers are moving in the right direction, but still too conservative," Joshua Rhodes, an analyst with the firm Vibrant Clean Energy, tells me.
  • He points to the recent burst of long-term state and utility clean power plans, and he's skeptical that coal will even have close to the 13% share by 2050 that EIA projects.

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