Solar could power 45 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050 with multi-billion dollar investment, DOE says
Energize Weekly, September 15, 2021
The U.S. could get 40 percent of its electricity from solar installations by 2035 and 45 percent by 2050 – through $225 to $560 billion in the power grid investments, according to a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) analysis.
The goal would require a 10-fold increase over the nation’s current solar generation in 15 years, rising from the current 80 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity to 760-1,000 GW.
“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,” Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement.
In 2020, 15 GW of new solar generation were installed. The analysis said that to reach the 2035 target, installations would have to double to 30 GW a year between 2021 and 2025 and double again to 60 GW a year from 2025 to 2030.
By 2035, solar and wind generation combined would provide 75 percent of the nation’s electricity, with carbon-free nuclear, hydropower and geothermal delivering up to 20 percent.
Buttressing the deployment of variable, renewable energy generation would be a buildup of energy storage which under the DOE blueprint would increase from the current 30 GW to 400 GW in 2035 and 1,700 GW in 2050.
Other technologies, such as advanced inverters and microgrids, as well as expansion of the grid, would also help increase the penetration of solar electricity while maintaining reliability.
The analysis, based on modeling by the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is not a Biden administration policy or target, officials said.
“It’s designed to guide and inspire the next decade of solar innovation by helping us answer questions like: How fast does solar need to increase capacity and to what level?” Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the DOE’s Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, said in an introduction to the report.
The analysis looked at three scenarios: a business-as-usual Reference scenario, a Decarbonization scenario – assuming a 95 percent reduction in grid CO2 emissions over 2005 by 2035, and a Decarbonization+E scenario – adding widespread electrification of end uses.
Even under the reference scenario, solar generation capacity increases sevenfold over 2020 levels by 2050, and the decline in coal-fired generation leads to a 45 percent reduction in power sector carbon emissions to 1,330 million metric tons of CO2, a 61 percent cut by 2050.
“That is, even without a concerted policy effort, market forces and technology advances will drive significant deployment of solar and other clean energy technologies as well as substantial decarbonization,” the report said.
The decarbonization scenarios show cumulative solar deployment of 760-1,000 GW by 2035 and 1,050-1,570 GW by 2050, accounting for 45 percent of the nation’s electricity.
Wind would generate 40 percent to 45 percent of the country’s electricity in 2050, and other clean energy generation including nuclear, hydropower, geothermal and combustion turbines running on synthetic fuels, such as hydrogen, would make up the rest.
“The target-driven deep decarbonization of the grid modeled in the Decarb and Decarb+E scenarios yields more extensive solar deployment, similarly extensive deployment of wind and energy storage, and significant expansions of the U.S. transmission system,” the report said.
The power system costs are estimated at $225 billion for the Decarb scenario and $562 billion for Decarb+E.
The analysis estimates the savings from avoided climate damages and improved air quality more than offset those additional costs, resulting in net savings of $1.1 trillion in the Decarb scenario and $1.7 trillion in the Decarb+E scenario.
In terms of broader U.S. energy use, the Decarb+E scenario reduces CO2 emissions by 62 percent in 2050, compared with 24 percent in the Reference scenario and 40 percent in the Decarb scenario.
The study projects that the continued introduction of improved and more efficient technologies will help keep electricity prices stable through 2035, despite the increase investment.
“Achieving these emissions reductions without raising electricity prices requires continued improvements in clean energy technologies, such as through R&D and learning-by-doing,” the report said. “Ultimately, the affordability of grid decarbonization—from an electricity price perspective—is determined by these two counteracting effects.”