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In 2009, I looked back at the projections made by a much-ballyhooed 1980 National Academy of Science (NAS) report, Energy in Transition, 1985 to 2010. That report took four years to assemble and involved 350 of America's smartest energy researchers, engineers, and economists. How did they do? Not too well. In the NAS economic growth scenario that most closely matched what actually happened, the experts projected that the U.S. energy consumption would rise from 80 quads to more than 130 quads of primary energy by 2010, a 60 percent increase. (A quad is a quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) which is equal to the amount of energy in 45 million tons of coal, or 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or 170 million barrels of crude oil.) Instead U.S. energy consumption rose to 98 quads, an increase of 22 percent.
Did government energy efficiency policies lead to the steep reduction in projected energy use? Again, not really. A 2004 study by the Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future found that energy efficiency programs reduced annual primary energy consumption by 4 quads below what it would otherwise have been.
Of course, it is possible that our ambitious 21st century energy policy experts armed with faster computers and more complicated models are right this time in their energy production and consumption projections. At least, that’s the economic bet that the climate activists and negotiators here in Durban want the rest of us to make.
Note: This is the third daily dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban. Since tomorrow is the penultimate day of negotiations, face-saving efforts to make the conference a “success” will begin being bruited about. I will be reporting from the conference until the bitter end.
Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.