How Would Nate Silver View Energy Consumption?

If you’re following the American political election campaign closely, you’ve probably run across Nate Silver’s weblog (now subsumed under the NY Times rubric) called Five Thirty Eight (named for the 438 Congressional  and 100 Senatorial seats that are contested).  He is one of 7 or 8 forecasters that were smart enough to invest time and energy into looking at races at a  more local level (as well as national polls) than most news organizations, who were content to take the output of national polls and pass them on to news consumers. Nate Silver and his competitors seem to be doing a better job of predicting past results and frankly I trust them much more than the national polls alone.

The reason Mr. Silver and those like him are beating the big pollsters is that looking at polls together and including polls of smaller geographic regions like states allows for more granularity in the results achieved. Where a Gallup poll or Pew survey can tell you what 1,000 people respond across the U.S., some state polls get 1,000 responses for the individual unit. That’s better. So Mr. Silver can not only get more accurate information about the country’s opinion, he can tell us how the Electoral College results are shaping up.

There’s a parallel between what Mr. Silver has done with U.S. politics and what I am trying to do with global energy consumption. The forecasts most people are familiar with are large, model-driven efforts from organizations like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration or the International Energy Agency. They incorporate a lot of inputs about fuel supplies, changing portfolios and projected prices and create supply-driven forecasts.

However, many of their results are reported at the regional level, which tends to hide the very different market dynamics between, say, South Korea and Indonesia, or South Africa and Zimbabwe.

This figure shows the difference in quadrillion BTUs (Quads) projected for consumption in 4 countries. The DOE’s EIA figures are compared with the projections from national or independent organizations, and my estimates are in the right hand column. The estimates are for 2030.

I think Nate Silver would say that a more granular look would provide more accurate results. As it happens, many countries have government departments or independent countries that provide estimates of future energy needs.

Those estimates are very different to what the models from large organizations project. My suspicion is because the local estimates understand that fuel consumption is driven by more urgent needs and a willingness to pay than the global estimates that consider fuel availability at what they think is an affordable price.

Because the local estimates are in fact very close to the totals I came up with in my report Energy Consumption in the Developing World in 2030, I am naturally predisposed to favor their figures. But I think that logic as well as my personal bias argues in favor of trusting the boots on the ground. The territory they cover is smaller. They spend just as much time getting their country’s figures as the mega-model makers do for the world. They understand their people and their markets better.

And now I can say, well, Nate Silver would do it my way if he were to do it at all!


10 responses to “How Would Nate Silver View Energy Consumption?

  1. “Those estimates are very different to what the models from large organizations project.”

    20 year old US EIA estimates for US energy consumption look mostly like nonsense in hind site. Satiation points are very difficult to predict.

    I.E. Will the average Chinese citizen decide to work harder to get an American sized house, a European sized house or a Japanese sized house.

    Technology change is also very difficult to predict.

  2. I think you are overrating Nate Silver, though it doesn’t hurt your argument. His analysis comes from looking at state polls. His rep comes from getting things right in 2008. However, over 4 years, when the state polls were way off, of the five time, Silver was wrong on four of them.

    On energy efficiency, have you checked out this?

  3. In 2008, Silver had the advantage, not publicly revealed, of Obama’s internal polling. The campaigns always spend vast amounts on polling compared to the pollsters that most people have access to.

    This year, Silver believes the polls which have adopted the Obama theory that Democrats will turn out to vote in numbers which smash the record enthusiasm of 2008. [Thus, Obama wins despite losing Independents by a large margin.] In those polls where the raw polling numbers are adjusted upward for Obama based on this turnout theory, he leads. When pollsters use a turnout model that reflects 2010 or any other election but 2008, Obama loses. Silver has decided to go with the Obama spin on turnout.

    I don’t see any point in giving credence to Silver based on his 2008 call. We know what he is basing 2012 on and we can evaluate for ourselves how much weight to give the Obama massive turnout theory. Are liberals and blacks as excited as they were in 2008? Are Republicans, conservatives and evangelicals as likely to stay home? Are people happy with the economy? Obamacare? Libya? Hmmmm.

    I suppose you can believe that a great wave of fired up Democrats are going to overwhelm the polls in numbers greater than 2008. But based on my own review of the evidence, I put the odds at something less than the 77.6% or whatever other ridiculously precise number Silver is slapping on his current SWAG.

  4. Tom, I clicked on your link to Nate Silver and didn’t get back to your article for a day. I think the 538 comes from 100 senators + 435 representatives + 3 electors from DC.
    I’ve been involved with two large meta studies in my life – one’s still classified and the other was on seismic periodicities. I am familiar with how much information can be gleaned and the pitfalls.
    As regard to 538, he is right to assume that the national polls are poor indicators for the electoral college. I see two big reasons why. National polls show more support for 3rd parties than swing state polls. This shows that 3rd party voters are willing to make a statement where their votes don’t count, but are willing to choose the lessor of two evils when it does. The other is that swing states were more likely to vote in Democratic governors in 2006 and to vote in Tea Partiers in 2010. I have spent the last 2 years in 2 of those states, WI and PA. There is a substantial anti-Republican backlash in both. This is probably the first election in my life time where the electoral college might give the advantage to a Democrat.
    The pitfalls are many. Safe states are under sampled. But I think that the primary error is that he is combining a lot of unsophisticated polls which are prone to sampling error. I think that Pew has shown that people with land lines only don’t vote the same as people with prepaid phones only. I believe that Silver corrects for this, but that’s a dangerous business. I agree with Stan that Silvers reporting of 3 significant figures just makes him look like an amateur.
    My prediction is that it will be close with a real probability that Obama will take the electoral college but loose the popular vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if we go into some nasty recounts.
    My general thoughts on the election. If the only choice most people get to make is Romney or Obama, the system is broken.

  5. Since Tom is busy and things are slow and there’s an election coming up; I think that I will make a post that is slightly off topic. I heard two students arguing a few days ago. They thought that if Romney was elected that there would be more nuclear construction and more fracking. One thought that would be good, the other one thought it would be bad. But what bothered me is that both agreed that Romney would build more nukes and frack more. I have to wonder why?
    What do you all (or yunzes or yuez guys) think would be the real difference in a Romney energy policy?
    If co2 is declassified as a pollutant and subsidies dropped, what would be the shift in energy sources?
    Has he said anything specific?

    • Romney’s Energy Policy

      Drill Baby Drill
      Keystone Pipeline
      Stop killing coal via regulation(It’s in trouble in the US do to market forces)
      Expand NRC staffing to shorten reactor approval timeline to 2 years.

  6. If Romney is elected (which I don’t think will happen) he would undoubtedly have control of the House and almost certainly would not have control of the Senate. He would be constrained insofar as dramatic new legislation. He would have more freedom in executive actions and could conceivably steer the EPA down a different path–rescinding Lisa Jackson’s regime that is unfavorable to coal.

    I do not believe this would spur new investment in coal power plants. I don’t think the dash for gas will be stopped. Some coal plants will stay on line a little longer.

    As for nuclear power in the United States, I honestly believe it would take a president whose focus was riveted on its revival–as much focus as Obama’s was on Obamacare–willing to sacrifice political capital and make it the keystone legislative and regulatory achievement of her/his presidency.

    I don’t think Romney would double down on two aces with a dealer showing a four, so I doubt if he would do anything at all to get us out of nuclear gridlock.

  7. If you’re holding 2 aces, shouldn’t you split?

  8. Yeah, been a while since I was at the tables…

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