What does it mean to the world if we discover that developing countries may use 57% more energy in 20 years than previously calculated? Or that the world as a whole may use 30% more energy in 2030 than we are planning for now?
This world of 7 billion people is in the process of preparing for the next 2 or even 3 billion humans who will join us on this planet over the course of this century. For most of us, that preparation consists of taking care of our families and preparing the next generation to do well in an uncertain environment. For those in public service, the preparation also includes making sure their city, region or country is doing more than just surviving the current crises and perennial problems.
For a very few, this preparation centers on predicting the future—how many of us will there be, how the economic condition of the world will enable or handicap their development, who will be advantaged or disadvantaged by changes in the human population and their effects on this world.
This story is about forecasting energy consumption, which forms the basis for both educated guesses and confident predictions about GDP, development and public health. Energy is one of the base assumptions for what we think will happen. Energy, along with fresh water, are limiting factors—if we have enough of them, we can make other plans. Without adequate supplies, planning will be based on shifting sands.
Despite this, there really aren’t that many organizations making careful forecasts of energy consumption in the future, especially compared to the number of organizations that try to estimate economic growth. It is true that there are many companies, think tanks and government departments that are very interested in how much of what type of fuel will be available, where they can find it and how much it will cost. But once it’s out of the ground or into the fuel tanks and electricity grids of the world, their interest declines sharply. Supply is very important to these people. Consumption, not so much.
One exception to this is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. It was formed in 1977 as a response to the oil supply shock of 1973. It is the U.S.’s go-to source for data and information about energy use worldwide, as well as America. About 400 people work for the EIA and it has an annual budget close to $100 million. Perhaps because they are independent of political influence, they have a pretty good track record. They are highly respected and deservedly so.
(The other major provider of statistical information about energy use is the International Energy Agency, an inter-governmental organization set up in 1974 for pretty much the same reason as the EIA—to provide information to better deal with situations like the oil crisis that had just concluded. But because they were formed as a policy tool to deal with oil supply disruptions, their numbers (which are not as easy to access as their American counterpart’s) are not always considered impartial and are not as widely used. For this article I focus on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration’s figures.)
The end result of what both organizations do is hugely important to planners for the future. Those who are deciding where and how many power plants, dams, roads and wind turbines to build, how many roads, planes, pipelines and ships will be needed and for those estimating how to budget for provision of energy to tomorrow’s populations. Two million people download data from the EIA’s website every month.
I am one of them. I’ve been an energy analyst in the past, one of those who write incredibly long reports about things like ‘The Global Market for Energy Efficiency 2009-2014’ (sadly, an actual title). I now work as a market researcher for a solar power company. And this story is about how I have come to believe that the DOE’s EIA may be wrong about something very important—their estimates of how much energy the developing world will consume over the next 20 years.
The Energy Information Administration, an organization I greatly respect and whose numbers I use almost daily, projects that the world will use about 721 quadrillion BTUs in 2030, a staggering amount of energy and a large increase over the 500 ‘quads’ the world consumed in 2010. But I think the world will use closer to 936 quads in 2030, primarily because the developing world will develop faster than estimated by the EIA.
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