Solar energy could supply one-third of all electricity demand in the Western US by 2050 while and massively cutting emissions – if the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative succeeds.
Researchers made the bold prediction in “SunShot Solar Power Reduces Costs and Uncertainty in Future Low-Carbon Electricity Systems,” a study released this week by the University of California at Berkeley.
Using a detailed computer model that considered potential cost reductions through the SunShot Initiative and potential effects of proposed emissions reduction policies, the study found if DOE achieves its goal of reducing the cost of solar to $0.06 cents per kilowatt-hour to reach grid parity, it will displace natural gas, nuclear, and clean coal technologies while reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels.
Solar Energy Could Save The Planet At A Modest Cost
The UC Berkeley team used SWITCH (Solar, Wind, Transmission, Conventional, and Hydro) a high-resolution electricity system planning model, to study what the future of solar energy could look like across the Western US. Fortunately, the outlook is bright for solar for states west of the Kansas-Colorado border and as far north as Alberta and British Columbia.
A cap-and-trade or carbon tax system will be initially required to provide utilities the incentives they need to shift toward solar, good news considering California has already begun successful operation of its cap-and-trade system, and additional Western US states and Canadian Provinces could create similar systems through the Western Climate Initiative.
But if SunShot works, the transition to a solar-based electrical system with reduced emissions could save consumers 14% off their bills, roughly $20 billion annually by 2050. “Given strategic long-term planning and research and policy support, the increase in electricity costs can be contained as we reduce emissions,” said Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley professor and study leader. “Saving the planet may be possible at only a modest cost.”
SunShot Will Help, But Widespread Coordination Will Be Key
SunShot’s main goal is to invest in transformative solar energy research, and echoes President Barack Obama’s call for a “Sputnik moment” to stimulate American innovation for economic growth. The initiative has gotten off to a fast start by funding solar startups, increasing solar reliability and grid integration, supporting high-efficiency solar technologies, and lowering the “soft costs” of solar energy.
Through a diverse mix of renewable energy generation sources and innovative grid technologies, the study finds solar can displace natural gas in the medium term and reduce the need for nuclear or carbon capture and sequestration technologies – reaching far beyond America’s current 10-gigawatt installed solar PV capacity.
Utility-scale energy storage will have to play a central role in achieving widespread solar deployment, and if flexible loads are available through applications like demand response, solar penetration levels could be even higher than initial estimates.
Reaching America’s solar-powered future will take a coordinated push of smart solar policies across utilities, state governments, grid operators, and federal officials, but it could be worth the effort.
“The lower estimated ratepayer cost is also partly attributable to the coordinated investment in new power plants, transmission lines, storage, and demand response in the SWITCH model,” said Kammen. “Using such a comprehensive strategy could substantially reduce the actual consumer cost of meeting carbon emission targets.”