Energy & Environment

Master Resource Reprises My Takedown of the National Academy of Sciences' Energy Projections

How is America's Energy Future looking nine years after I first panned it? Not so good.


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Master Resource, the pro-market energy blog, has just published an item that revives and recaps a Reason piece I wrote back in 2009. My article took apart two studies by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that purported to project the next 30 years U.S. energy production and consumption. I know it's bit geeky, but I confess it's one of my all-time favorite articles.

So how are the NAS's projections looking nine years later? In many respects, not so good. For example, U.S. annual natural gas production was projected to rise from 19 trillion cubic feet in 2007 to 20 trillion cubic feet in 2020. Actual production for the 12 months ending in October 2017 was 26.4 trillion cubic feet. Domestic production of oil would supposedly rise slightly from 5.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 6.2 million barrels in 2020. In October 2017, U.S. oil production hit the highest level ever at 9.67 million barrels per day.

The NAS predicted that power plants using natural gas would supply 610 terawatt-hours of electricity by 2020. (One terawatt-hour is equivalent to the energy produced burning nearly 600,000 barrels of oil.) In 2017, burning natural gas generated more than double that amount: 1,277 terawatt-hours of electricity. Overall, the NAS expected Americans to consume 4,308 terrawatt-hours of electricity annually by 2020. Perhaps, but current consumption is just over 4,000 terawatt-hours.

The NAS panel also advocated the construction before 2020 of between 15 to 20 new demonstration or retrofited fossil-fuel power plants using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. The idea is to bury the carbon dioxide emitted by such plants rather than let it float into the atmosphere where it would exacerbate man-made global warming. After spending $3 billion on the technology, the largest such demonstration plant in the U.S. located in Kemper Mississippi abandoned CCS last year, leaving only the Petra Nova plant in Texas still gamely pursuing CCS technology.

When it comes to the NAS' natural gas and oil projections, some readers might be more forgiving. How, they may ask, could the NAS experts have foreseen the fracking revolution? But that's precisely the point. Entrepreneurs and innovators acting in markets are far smarter than any panel of experts. Rather than devising plans, pathways, and projections, public policy should focus on freeing up markets so innovators can solve problems unforeseen by expert panels.

The Master Resource version is kind of my greatest hits. If you'd like to see the full-strength analysis, click on through to my original piece: "How Green Is Your Crystal Ball?"