Guess Who Most Accurately Predicted the Clean Energy Market Boom

The world's most sophisticated, well-paid energy analysts all drastically underestimated the growth in renewable power. One group didn't.

Worldwide, clean energy is going gangbusters. Fueled by China's prodigious panel manufacturing, the price of solar is plunging and installation is booming. 2014 was the biggest year for solar, ever, period. And wind power is reaching grid parity with (read: it's just as cheap as) fossil fuels in many regions. As a result, the market for clean energy has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, as consumers, governments, and all businesses move to adopt a spate of new renewable power technologies.

The US Department of Energy calls it an "energy revolution," and a widely circulated report from the Meister Consultants Group shows that just about no one saw it coming. The world's biggest energy agencies, financial institutions, and fossil fuel companies, for the most part, seriously underestimated just how fast the clean power sector could and would grow.

Meister identifies one group that got the market scenario closest to right, however, and it wasn't the International Energy Agency or Goldman Sachs or the DOE. It was Greenpeace.

"Over the past 15 years, a number of predictions—by the International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration, and others—have been made about the future of renewable energy growth," the Meister report noted. "Almost every one of these predictions has underestimated the scale of actual growth experienced by the wind and solar markets. Only the most aggressive growth projections, such as Greenpeace's Energy [R]evolution scenarios, have been close to accurate."

Yes, Greenpeace. The environmentalist group best known for pulling off high-profile stunts to protest fossil fuels, deforestation, and nuclear power. They ​scale coal plants and oil platforms in the name of fighting climate change. They unfurl banners, they protest. They still have those boats. And apparently, they do market analysis of renewable energy development trends better than most of our "respectable" institutions.

Meister cites Greenpeace's 2010 Energy [R]evolution report as being the most accurate predictor of renewable power growth offered at the time—though it significantly underestimated solar and just slightly overestimated wind. (Greenpeace wasn't alone in its optimistic forecasts of clean power growth to be sure, but they're who Meister cites.)

"Our projections are much closer to actual renewable energy development than those from IEA because we have monitored global and national renewable energy market development and production capacities carefully since the mid 90s, and discuss possible growth rates with the solar and wind industries," Sven Teske, the lead author of the report, told me in an email. "We know what they have in their order books for the next 3 to 5 years and extrapolate it for the next 5 years. This gives us a very good idea about what the renewable energy market will do within the next decade."

The Very Serious People in Washington and beyond tend to disregard Greenpeace's analysis due to its activist bent, but in this case, it's likely what allowed the group to nail the world's clean power growth trajectory.

Importantly, Greenpeace's reports are aspirational, and they make no bones about it.

"Everything beyond projections for the next 10 years is simply a political statement from us, indicating what we want to see happen," Teske said. "This also becomes a work plan for us. If we see a renewable energy market isn't performing as we want it to, we'll try to jump in with campaigns—against fossil and nuclear fuels and in favor of renewables."

Greenpeace—along with other outspoken clean energy campaigners like 350.org and the Sierra Club—has directly influenced the market on a number of occasions. Perhaps most notably with the Clean Our Cloud campaign that pressured tech companies to switch from coal; that was widely seen as the driving factor in motivating Apple's disavowal of fossil fuels and subsequent commitment to solar. Today, Apple is dropping nearly a billion dollars on a new, massive solar plant to power its operations. Apple, obviously, is the largest private company on the planet, and a standard-bearer for Silicon Valley. Those moves ripple outwards.

"We are working on a new projection: 100 percent renewable energy by 2050"

This is not to give Greenpeace credit for the industry-wide boom itself, obviously; it was a single actor among many, and the bulk of the recent development comes from huge utility-scale renewable projects. But let's not underestimate the environmental movement's impact, either.

Since the rush to combat climate change soured in 2009 as Republicans turned against any policies that curbed carbon, the public has been blanketed with claims the clean energy is "too expensive" or "unreliable." Solar companies were lumped in with Solyndra, the bankrupted federally-backed solar startup, and written off as doomed to fail. Even Wired, in what may come to be remembered as one of the most off-the-mark cover stories in its tenure, declared that the cleantech boom had gone "bust" and ran a spread of images showing disintegrating wind turbines and flaming biofuel bins.

There was no bust, obviously—despite political opposition, "conventional wisdom," and a fleet of naysaying pundits, the boom went right along booming. This happened thanks to two factors; market fundamentals and sustained advocacy. Renewable energy is popular with the public, costs keep falling (as tends to happen when industries mature), and solar and wind are now simply a sound financial prospect. An entire town in Texas, for instance, just ditched fossil fuels because renewables are cheaper. And environmental and clean energy advocates—through marches, the fossil fuel divestment effort, community organizing—never stopped pushing to broadcast that message, for better policies, to create and safeguard a space for the industry's now-explosive growth.

Clean energy, after all, is not a market like most others—unlike with, say, consumer electronics or fashion, there is a moral imperative that its stock soar. If it doesn't, fossil fuels win out and scientists say we risk baking the planet. It makes sense, then, that Greenpeace might be able to predict the forthcoming energy revolution when the bureaucrats couldn't—its analysts spotted and laid out the trends, while its campaigners understood they were worth fighting to uphold.

It's something of a humorous notion that a Wall Street investor who took Greenpeace's cleantech projections seriously would be rolling in it right now—and that future investors may flock to its latest Energy [R]evolution Report. But the eco group will likely welcome their eyeballs: As it stands, they're the ones who are going to help Greenpeace nail its next round of projections.

"[N]ow renewable energy is cheaper than conventional energies, so we are working on a new projection: 100 percent renewable energy by 2050," Teske said. "We should be able to achieve at least 90 percent. Anything less would be a failure for the climate and our planet, therefore failure is not an option."