U.S. Can Become 45% Solar Powered by 2050. Too Much to Ask or Too Important to ignore?
Environmental Policy Brief #128 | By: Jacob Morton | September 19, 2021
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The Biden administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) released an encouraging report on September 8, called the Solar Futures Study, showing that solar energy has the potential to generate 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035, and outlines how the nation could move toward producing up to 45% of its electricity from solar power by 2050.
Though solar energy only contributed less than 4% of the country’s electricity last year, that number is up from less than 1/10 of 1% in 2010. The industry is growing fast and renewable energy as a whole now provides about 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Natural gas and coal account for about 60%.
According to an earlier report by the DOE this past February, “the share of electricity produced by all renewable sources, including solar, wind and hydroelectric dams, would reach 42 percent by 2050 based on current trends and policies.” To increase the production of electricity to 45% by 2050 through solar power alone, will no doubt require the solar industry to continue to grow in a major way, but thanks to supportive policies the industry is positioned to do that.
Achieving 45% electricity generation from solar power alone is no small task, and “will require trillions of dollars in investments by homeowners, businesses and the government.” Traditionally, the primary sources of power for the electric grid have been coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. A decarbonized grid “would have to be almost completely remade with the addition of batteries, transmission lines and other technologies” that not only generate electricity, but that can also store that power and “send it from one corner of the country to another.”
However, the cost of solar panels has fallen substantially over the last decade, and the technology has only improved with the industry’s expansion. Over the past ten years, the cost of utility scale solar has dropped by 90% and rooftop solar 60%. Not only that, “Solar panels being installed today are 37% more efficient at converting the sun’s rays to electricity than they were 10 years ago.” The DOE’s Solar Futures report indicates that “solar panels have fallen so much in cost that they could produce 40 percent of the country’s electricity by 2035 — enough to power all American homes — and 45 percent by 2050.”
How the country will achieve this is unclear, and at the moment, the Biden administration appears to be leaving the details to Congress to decide as they work through the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion infrastructure measure. However, while Congress debates the specifics of implementing such a transition, the DOE’s report presents a guiding blueprint, calling for “strong decarbonization policies coupled with a massive deployment of renewable energy sources, large-scale electrification, and grid modernization.” The key findings presented in the DOE’s report include:
- A clean grid requires massive, equitable deployment of diverse, sustainable energy sources — The U.S. must install “an average of 30 GW of solar capacity per year between now and 2025 and 60 GW per year from 2025-2030. The study’s modeling further shows the remainder of a carbon-free grid supplied by wind (36%), nuclear (11%-13%), hydroelectric (5%-6%) and biopower/geothermal (1%).”
- A decarbonized power sector will create millions of cross-sector jobs – “The study modeling shows that solar will employ 500,000 to 1.5 million people across the country by 2035. Overall, the clean energy transition will generate around 3 million jobs across technologies.”
- New tools that increase grid flexibility, like storage and advanced inverters, as well as transmission expansion, will help to move solar energy to all pockets of America – Storage capabilities across the country will have to grow from “30 GW to nearly 400 GW in 2035 and 1,700 GW in 2050. Advanced tools like grid-forming inverters, forecasting, and microgrids will play a role in maintaining the reliability and performance of a renewable-dominant grid.”
- A renewable-based grid will create significant health and cost savings – Reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality would result in savings of “$1.1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, far outweighing the additional costs incurred from transitioning to clean energy. The projected price of electricity for consumers does not rise by 2035, because the costs are fully offset by savings from technological improvements,” according to the DOE.
- Supportive decarbonization policies and advanced technologies are needed to further reduce the cost of solar energy — Without a strategy that combines limits on carbon emissions with incentives for adopting clean energy, the U.S. cannot fully decarbonize the grid—”models show that grid emissions fall only 60% without policy. Continued technological advances that lower the cost of solar energy are also necessary to enable widespread solar deployment.”
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Alongside the report, President Biden has made clear that he wants legislators to use tax credits to encourage utilities, businesses, and homeowners to install solar power systems and batteries. The administration has also indicated it would like to see local governments make internal adjustments to speed up the permitting process for new solar projects. DOE officials also say various other incentives ought to be offered to utility companies to encourage solar energy use.
Jennifer M. Granholm, Biden’s Energy Secretary, said part of the administration’s strategy would focus on its Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would reward utilities for adding renewable energy to the electric grid, including energy generated from rooftop solar installations. Many utility companies, however, have resisted promoting rooftop solar panels because “they see a threat to their business and would rather build large solar farms that they own and control.”
Granholm says she recognizes the concern held by utility companies, but that “Both have to happen, and the utilities will be incentivized to take down the barriers.” She notes that it is a combination of strategies that will produce the greatest results for all during this transition, “We’ve got to do a series of things.”
Director of the Solar Energy Technology Office at the DOE, Becca Jones-Albertus, says of the report, “One of the things we’re hoping that people see and take from this report is that it is affordable to decarbonize the grid.” She says, “The grid will remain reliable. We just need to build.”
Some question whether the plan to reach 40% solar generated electricity by 2035 or 45% by 2050 is actually realistic. However, many analysts, despite the drastic measures required to achieve those goals, present optimism when citing the recent growth of the solar industry and the adoption of policies that have supported that growth.
As well, the impact of the recent advance in solar technology and its deployment is made even more potent by the fact that energy efficiency and electrification of homes and businesses has increased, with the potential to cut energy use in half by 2050. According to Johanna Neumann, Senior Director of Environment America’s Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, “By reducing the amount of energy we use overall, it makes it that much easier to get more of the energy we need to power our lives from renewable sources like the sun.”
When asked how feasible it would be to achieve the DOE’s goal of 40% solar electricity by 2035, Neumann writes, “Very.” Neumann says, “We have 14 years before we hit 2035. We can achieve 40% solar and we don’t need revolutionary new policy to make it happen. But we do need a steady hand on the tiller to point America in the direction of growing renewables.” Achieving 45% solar electricity by 2050 should not be much harder.
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Neumann argues that “limitless energy” from the sun shines down on American communities every day, “We just need the will to put solar collectors under more of the sun’s rays to produce electricity.” She says, “The constraints are not technical. In fact, using today’s technology, America could repower itself 75 times over from the sun. So, the 40% solar ambition that the Department of Energy lays out in this new report is really very doable.”
Beyond finding the will to do it, skeptics argue that building and installing enough solar panels to generate up to 45% of the country’s power needs “will strain manufacturers and the energy industry, increasing demand for materials like aluminum, silicon, steel and glass. The industry will also need to find and train tens of thousands of workers, and quickly.” This could potentially present a significant image problem for the President, as reporting by the New York Times suggests a number of labor groups report that “in the rush to quickly build solar farms, developers often hire lower-paid nonunion workers rather than the union members Mr. Biden frequently champions.”
Trade disputes with China could also present a significant challenge to the endeavor. China dominates the supply chain for solar panels, and the administration recently began blocking imports connected with the Xinjiang region of China over concerns about the use of forced labor. According to energy experts, at least in the short term, the import ban could slow the development of solar projects in the United States.
Additionally, the need for batteries to store energy generated by solar panels will increase, and though the cost of batteries has been falling, many analysts say the cost remains too high for such a rapid shift to renewables and electric cars.
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Despite these challenges, most energy analysts contend that without a massive increase in the use of solar energy, it would be impossible to achieve the President’s climate goals. “No matter how you slice it, you need solar deployments to double or quadruple in the near term,” says Michelle Davis, a principal analyst at the energy research and consulting firm, Wood Mackenzie. “Supply chain constraints are certainly on everyone’s mind.”
The need for decarbonization is here, now more than ever. According to a new report released by the United Nations this past Friday, “the planet is on track to warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.” This is in grim contrast to the maximum limit of warming set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August, of 2 degrees Celsius (but better yet 1.5 degrees C) that is needed “to prevent the most severe climate consequences and suffering, especially of the most vulnerable, throughout the world.”
Heeding this call to action, Energy Secretary Granholm points to her Department’s Solar Futures report, saying, “The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process.” Granholm says, “Achieving this bright future requires a massive and equitable deployment of renewable energy and strong decarbonization policies – exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.”
Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar and Storage Association, representing solar developers in the industry’s most active state, says, “In essence the D.O.E. is saying America needs a ton more solar, not less, and we need it today, not tomorrow.” Del Chiaro argues, “That simple call to action should guide every policymaking decision from city councils to legislatures and regulatory agencies across the country.”
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Environment America (Voices for 100% Renewable Energy) – A national network of 29 state environmental groups with members and supporters in every state. Together, the Environment America network focuses on timely, targeted action that wins tangible improvements in the quality of our environment and our lives.
Sierra Club (Ready For 100) – It’s time for 100% clean energy for, of, and by the people. Clean energy is here. Let’s make it for everyone. City by city and state by state, it’s time for an equitable and just transition to 100% clean, renewable energy. Communities are ready for 100%. Find a Ready For 100 campaign or city that is committed to—or powered by—100% clean energy near you. Learn more or take action now!
Clean Air Task Force (CATF.us) – Catalyzing resilient solutions, scaled to meet the climate challenge. Every year people produce almost forty billion tons of carbon dioxide that is pumped into the atmosphere – that’s a hundred times faster than the Earth has ever seen. If we don’t take action, our planet will change far faster than we can adapt. This is the mother of all environmental problems, and the Clean Air Task Force is on it.
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Neumann, J. (2021, September 10). Our solar FUTURE: Reacting to a new Department of energy report. Environment America. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://environmentamerica.org/blogs/environment-america-blog/ame/our-solar-future-reacting-new-department-energy-report.
Baxter-Griffith, L., Schneider, C., & Davis, S. (2021, August). Clean Electricity Payment Program. Clean Air Task Force. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.catf.us/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/CATF_CEPP_2Pager_08.05.21.pdf.
Booth, W. (2021, September 17). As climate pledges fall short, U.N. Predicts globe could warm by CATASTROPHIC 2.7 degrees Celsius. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/09/17/un-climate-2030-biden/.
DOE releases Solar Futures Study providing the blueprint for a ZERO-CARBON GRID. Energy.gov. (2021, September 8). Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/articles/doe-releases-solar-futures-study-providing-blueprint-zero-carbon-grid.
Solar futures study. Energy.gov. (2021, September 8). Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.energy.gov/eere/solar/solar-futures-study.
Penn, I. (2021, September 8). From 4% TO 45%: Biden OFFERS Ambitious blueprint for solar energy. The New York Times. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/08/business/energy-environment/biden-solar-energy-climate-change.html.
United Nations. (2021, September 17). Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern. unfccc.int. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern.