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Making Figures Lie

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In 2013, Ryan Carlyle, with his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering wrote an opinion piece in Forbes Magazine. It was called “What Are The Top Five Facts Everyone Should Know About Oil Exploration?”

Bsically he argued the oil industry is huge, important, competitive and irreplacible. To show it was irreplacible he pointed out that “If solar power generation doubled every decade for 100 years, it would still be pretty far behind oil today.” and he concluded “Sorry guys, but regular old exponential growth isn’t even enough. To match oil, you’ll need half a century or more of clear energy superiority. “

So let’s do the math. Ryans says doubling every decade for a hundred years won’t make solar a contender. He is right. 2^10 = 1024 is a big number, but not when you start with a 0.07% of energy supply. By Ryan’s calculation solar power would provide at best 70% of the power need in 2009 by 2109.

On the other hand a 20% annual growth rate – smaller than what we are actually seeing – gives us .2^100 = 82,817,975. That is a number eighty thousand times a large as Ryan’s. At that rate solar alone supplies all the current energy needs of the world in 40 years. So does wind.

So who is doing tricks with numbers? Me, an economist and part-time Green party candidate? or Ryan – a chemical engineer who works as a “subsea hydraulics engineer” (ie. for an oil company) and publishes in a business magazine? Everything depends on who has the best estimate of the growth rate of renewable energy technologies. Or maybe it depends on what you want to believe.



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