The US Department of Energy released a study that suggests solar power could provide 35% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2035 and 45% by 2050. The scenario assumes continued technological innovation to reduce costs, substantial government investment, and “large-scale electrification” of power plant, building, and transportation infrastructure.
To achieve these numbers the DOE stated:
“Solar deployment will need to grow by an average of 30 gigawatts alternating each year between now and 2025 and ramp up to 60 GW per year between 2025 and 2030.”
Last year’s numbers are encouraging, though slightly shy of the DOE’s benchmarks. According to a joint report by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie, the U.S. solar industry grew more in 2020 than any other year despite the pandemic, adding a record 19.2 gigawatts of new capacity — a 43% jump from 2019. Researchers forecasted that over the next decade, solar will add 324 gigawatts of new capacity to reach a total of 419 gigawatts by 2030. The 2-year extension of the investment tax credit in the final days of 2020 led SEIA and Mackenzie to increase their estimated solar deployment from 2021 to 2025 by 17%.
For the second year in a row, in 2020 solar led all technologies in new electric-generating capacity added in the US, accounting for 43%. In QI 2021, Solar accounted for 58% of all new electricity-generating capacity. In its latest U.S. Solar Market Insight, the SEIA predicted that even under a “ business-as-usual scenario, the U.S. solar industry will install an additional 160 GW of capacity over the next 5 years” — figures in line with the DOE’s.
Implementing these steps will be costly, but the DOE is confident that “decarbonization and electrification costs” will be “fully offset by savings from technological improvements and enhanced demand flexibility.” The scenario projects zero increase in electricity costs through 2035. Through 2050, “cumulative power system costs” are $562 billion — 25 percent higher than a business-as-usual scenario. However, the DOE highlights that this amount is “more than offset” by “avoided climate damages and improved air quality,” producing an estimated net savings of $1.7 trillion. The DOE noted that an aggressive transition to solar will also stimulate the economy, creating up to 1.5 million jobs by 2035.
Expanding solar power will make the electricity grid more reliable and resilient. One example given is “small-scale solar,” which, when “coupled with storage, can enhance resilience by allowing buildings or microgrids to power critical loads during grid outages.”
The DOE assuaged concerns about solar’s footprint, stating,
“Ground-based solar technologies require a maximum land area equivalent to 0.5% of the contiguous U.S. surface area. This requirement could be met in numerous ways, including the use of disturbed or contaminated lands unsuitable for other purposes.”
The DOE concluded the study by highlighting the need to distribute the costs and benefits of solar equitably, including a just transition for displaced fossil fuel workers, democratic procedures for “energy-related decision making,” and proper environmental accounting for the impacts of “solar project citing and disposal of solar materials.”
Commenting on the study, Jefferies Group’s Global Head of ESG and Sustainability Research, Aniket Shah, stated:
“The US is getting serious about addressing climate change… [The study] suggests that solar will receive the most investment in the decarbonization of the US and do it without raising electricity costs.”