This paper explores how long-term energy forecasts are created and why they are useful. It focuses on forecasts of energy use in the United States for the year 2000 but considers only long-term predictions, i.e., those covering two or more decades. The motivation is current interest in global warming forecasts, some of which run beyond a century. The basic observation is that forecasters in the 1950–1980 period underestimated the importance of unmodeled surprises. A key example is the failure to foresee the ability of the United States economy to respond to the oil embargos of the 1970s by increasing efficiency. Not only were most forecasts of that period systematically high, but forecasters systematically underestimated uncertainties. Long-term energy forecasts must make assumptions about both technologies and social systems. At their most successful, they influence how people act by showing the consequences of not acting. They are useful when they provide insights to energy planners, influence the perceptions of the public and the energy policy community, capture current understanding of underlying physical and economic principles, or highlight key emerging social or economic trends.

It is true that at best we see dimly into the future, but those who acknowledge their duty to posterity will feel impelled to use their foresight upon what facts and guiding principles we do possess. Though many data are at present wanting or doubtful, our conclusions may be rendered so far probable as to lead to further inquiries… (1), p. 4.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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