As the sun sets on 2011 and we all turn our eyes to 2012, it’s time for journalists and consultants to publish their predictions for the coming year. I was briefly tempted to create such a list — something along the lines of “energy prices will be higher, the planet will be warmer, and many regions will be affected by drought” — until I remembered that I’ve always been bad at predicting.
For example, back in the late 1970s, I was convinced that energy prices would rise steeply during the 1980s. I was wrong.
I’m not the only one with a bad forecasting track record. Most people, “experts” included, are terrible at predicting the future. So instead of presenting my own predictions, I’ve decided to take a look at the accuracy of past predictions made by other authors and experts.
Here are some predictions I’ve gathered, beginning with the most recent.
Predictions made in 2009: Smart meters will lead to 30% energy savings
An article published in Business Week in November 2009 predicted that by the end of 2010, “Smart grids/meters will take the world by storm. Annual global spending on the technology will jump to $33 billion by 2014 vs. $12 billion in 2008. That could increase electricity grids’ efficiency two-fold and reduce consumers’ energy consumption by 30%.” Or not.
Predictions made in 2003: Oil at $20 a barrel
Billionaire Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, predicted in February 2003 that, as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, oil prices would fall from the then-current level of $32 a barrel to only $20 a barrel. Said Murdoch, “The whole world will benefit from cheaper oil which will be a bigger stimulus than anything else.”
Soon after Murdoch made his prediction, however, oil prices began climbing. The average price of a barrel of oil rose to $37 in 2004, $50 in 2005, and $91 in 2008.
Predictions made in 2000: Cars getting 70 miles per gallon
An article published in 2000 on the GreenBiz website predicted that by 2010, hybrid cars getting 70 miles per gallon would be garnering an increasing share of the automobile market.
The same article predicted that by 2010, “Large-scale power grids will make way for smaller, distributed systems that will make major blackouts and energy disruptions a thing of the past. Individual or local power generation will be accomplished via microturbines, internal combustion engines, and fuel cells powered by natural gas.”
An article from 1986 ridicules predictions that energy prices will rise
During the 1960s, many journalists and scientists predicted that in the future, oil would be plentiful and cheap. After the two major oil crises of the 1970s, however, prognosticators began changing their tune. By 1980, it was fashionable to predict future energy shortages and very high energy prices.
As it turned out, energy prices dropped during the 1980s, so several authors ridiculed those who forecast that energy prices would rise. One such author was Werner Meyer, who published an article on the topic, “Snake Oil Salesman,” in the Summer 1986 issue of Public Policy.
Among the forecasters that Meyer ridiculed was Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, who made the following inaccurate prediction in 1979: “Irreversible physical shortfalls in supplies may take place as early as 1988. [The result] is likely to push market prices to levels three or four times the current one.”
When Meyer was writing in 1986, it was easy to laugh at such predictions. However, 25 years later, some of the experts derided by Meyer don’t sound so stupid after all. For example, Meyer scoffed at the following prediction made in March 1970 by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute: “The day when a tankful of gasoline costs $50 is probably not far off.” Depending on your definition of “not far,” Brown’s prediction wasn’t that crazy after all.
Predictions made in 1980: A huge role for renewables
In 1980, physicist Bent Sorenson predicted that by 2005, 49% of the America’s energy could come from renewable sources. The actual percentage was closer to 7%.
Predictions made in 1974: A photovoltaic boom
An article in the April 19, 1974 issue of Science magazine predicted that by 1980, U.S. sales of photovoltaic modules “could exceed $400 million.” In fact, sales were under $10 million.
As late as 1997, U.S. manufacturers of PV modules had sales totaling only $175 million.
Predictions made in 1950: Pocket cell phones
In 1950, in a speech at the annual Science Fiction Convention, author Robert Heinlein made several predictions for the year 2000, including the following:
- “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.” Not bad.
- “In fifteen years [that is, by 1965] the housing shortage will be solved by a ‘breakthrough’ into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.”
We’re still waiting for the breakthrough — although it could be argued that almost every house now standing is already obsolete.
More predictions made in 1950: Where’s my helicopter?
A particularly entertaining collection of predictions, “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years,” was published in the February 1950 issue of Popular Mechanics. Written by Waldemar Kaempffert, the article painted a rosy picture of life in the U.S. in 2000.
The article is a hoot — a classic example of better-living-through-chemistry optimism, based on an unshakable faith that new inventions always bring progress.
The article begins, “The best way of visualizing the new world of A.D. 2000 is to introduce you to the Dobsons, who live in Tottenville, a hypothetical metropolitan suburb of 100,000. … It is a crime to burn raw coal and pollute the air with smoke and soot. In the homes, electricity is used to warm walls and to cook.”
Here’s a sample of predictions made in the 1950 article:
- “Because they sprawl over large surfaces, solar engines are profitable in 2000 only where land is cheap. They are found in deserts that can be made to bloom again, and in tropical lands where there is usually no coal or oil.”
- Some aspects of the description of the typical house in the year 2000 are remarkably accurate: “The Dobson house has light-metal walls only four inches thick. There is a sheet of insulating material an inch or two thick with a casing of sheet metal on both sides. This Dobson air-conditioned house is not a pre-fabricated structure. … It is a cheap house. … Though it is gale-proof and weatherproof, it is built to last only about 25 years. Nobody in 2000 sees any sense in building a house that will last a century.”
- “There are no dishwashing machines, for example, because dishes are thrown away after they have been used once.”
- “Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, and unscratchable floors are all made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic.”
- “Cooking as an art is only a memory in the minds of old people. … Some of the food that Jane Dobson buys is what we miscall ‘synthetic.’… Sawdust and wood pulp are converted into sugary foods.”
- “By 2000, supersonic planes cover a thousand miles an hour, but the consumption of fuel is such that high fares have to be charged.”
- “Cities have grown into regions, and it is sometimes hard to tell where one city ends and another begins.”
- “Instead of driving from Tottenville to California in their car, …the Dobsons use the family helicopter.”
- “It takes no more than a minute to transmit and receive in facsimile a five-page letter on paper of the usual business size. Cost? Five cents.”
- “If old Mrs. Underwood, who lives around the corner from the Dobsons and who was born in 1920, insists on sleeping under an old-fashioned comforter instead of an aerogel blanket of glass puffed with air so that it is as light as thistledown, she must expect people to talk about her ‘queerness.’ ”
Modern readers of the 1950 Popular Mechanics article smile, not so much because the predictions were inaccurate — after all, many Americans in 2000 (or 2011) lived in cheap houses with 4-inch-thick walls that were designed to last only 25 years, and many Americans eat sugary synthetic foods while sitting on a sofa made of plastic — but because the imagined future was seen as attractive and desirable.
Predictions made in 1900: Children will ride snowmobiles
For some very old predictions, let’s turn to the December 1900 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal.
In that long-ago magazine article, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years,” John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. made a number of interesting predictions. A few were wildly off base, but most were remarkably accurate:
- There will be no traffic jams: “The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only. A penny will pay the fare.”
- Cities will be quiet: “There will be no street cars in our large cities. All hurry traffic will be below or high above ground when brought within city limits. … Cities, therefore, will be free from all noises.”
- Watkins’s description of future train travel wasn’t far off the mark, although his prediction applies more to Europe or Japan than the U.S.: “Trains will run two miles a minute, normally; express trains one hundred and fifty miles an hour…. Cars will, like houses, be artificially cooled. Along the railroads there will be no smoke, no cinders, because coal will neither be carried nor burned.”
- Watkins predicted that automobiles would replace horses: “Farmers will own automobile hay-wagons, automobile truck-wagons, plows, harrows and hay-rakes. … Children will ride in automobile sleighs in winter. Automobiles will have been substituted for every horse vehicle now known. There will be, as already exist today, automobile hearses, automobile police patrols, automobile ambulances, automobile street sweepers. The horse in harness will be as scarce, if, indeed, not even scarcer, then as the yoked ox is today.”
- Watkins correctly predicted digital photography, e-mail, and cell phones: “Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance. If there be a battle in China a hundred years hence snapshots of its most striking events will be published in the newspapers an hour later. … Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world. A husband in the middle of the Atlantic will be able to converse with his wife sitting in her boudoir in Chicago. We will be able to telephone to China quite as readily as we now talk from New York to Brooklyn.”
- Watkins had an overly optimistic assessment of the world’s hydropower potential: “Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce, but not entirely exhausted. … Man will have found electricity manufactured by waterpower to be much cheaper. Every river or creek with any suitable fall will be equipped with water-motors, turning dynamos, making electricity. Along the seacoast will be numerous reservoirs continually filled by waves and tides washing in. Out of these the water will be constantly falling over revolving wheels. All of our restless waters, fresh and salt, will thus be harnessed to do the work which Niagara is doing today: making electricity for heat, light and fuel.”
- Watkins accurately predicted improvements in space heating and cooling: “Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. … Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.”
- Watkins accurately predicted the increased use of prepared foods and take-out meals: “Ready-cooked meals will be bought from establishments similar to our bakeries of today. … Such wholesale cookery will be done in electric laboratories rather than in kitchens. These laboratories will be equipped with electric stoves, and all sorts of electric devices, such as coffee-grinders, egg-beaters, stirrers, shakers, parers, meat-choppers, meat-saws, potato-mashers, lemon-squeezers, dish-washers, dish-dryers and the like.”
- Watkins accurately predicted future food imports: “Fast-flying refrigerators on land and sea will bring delicious fruits from the tropics and southern temperate zone within a few days. The farmers of South America, South Africa, Australia and the South Sea Islands, whose seasons are directly opposite to ours, will thus supply us in winter with fresh summer foods, which cannot be grown here.”
- Let’s hope that Watkins’s dystopian prediction concerning biological diversity never comes to pass: “There will be no wild animals except in menageries.”
A couple of accurate forecasts
Of the many past predictions of our energy future, two unusually accurate predictions are worth mentioning.
One was Charles David Keeling’s famous predictions from the 1960s concerning future atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. I first encountered Keeling’s line graph in the 1972 classic, Limits to Growth, which was assigned reading for an engineering course I took in 1973. When the book was published, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 326 ppm. The graph published in the book predicted that by 2000, CO2 levels would reach 380 ppm. In fact, that level was reached in 2004 — just four years later than predicted.
The other prediction worth noting was made by M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for Shell Oil, who predicted in 1956 that oil production in the U.S. would peak in the early 1970s. Hubbert, of course, was right.
Last week’s blog: “Payback Calculations for Energy-Efficiency Improvements.”