President Biden has proposed a bold plan to dramatically increase the amount of solar power generated in the US. The goal is for solar to provide 45% of America’s needs by 2050. Entrenched interests are already screaming that the new policy is too ambitious, too expensive, and too complex. They say it will throw millions of people out of work. What they are really afraid of, of course, is that it will reduce their profits, but they can’t say that out loud so they couch it in different terms. The answer is the Biden plan does the bare minimum needed to tame the explosion in carbon emissions that has occurred over the past 3 decades and meet the commitments the US made to the world community in the Paris climate accords of 2015.
The Department of Energy has posted a detailed report online that shows what needs to happen in order for the President’s policy to be successful. It says, “Solar deployment will need to grow by an average of 30 gigawatts alternating current (GWac) each year between now and 2025 and ramp up to 60 GW per year between 2025 and 2030 — four times its current deployment rate — to total 1,000 GWac of solar deployed by 2035.
“By 2050, solar capacity would need to reach 1,600 GWac to achieve a zero-carbon grid with enhanced electrification of end uses (such as motor vehicles and building space and water heating). Preliminary modeling shows that decarbonizing the entire U.S. energy system could result in as much as 3,200 GWac of solar due to increased electrification of buildings, transportation, and industrial energy and production of clean fuels.” Below are the key findings of that DOE report.
- With continued technological advances, electricity prices do not increase through 2035. 95% decarbonization of the electric grid is achieved in 2035 without increasing electricity prices because decarbonization and electrification costs are fully offset by savings from technological improvements and enhanced demand flexibility.
- Achieving decarbonization requires significant acceleration of clean energy deployment, which will employ as many as 500,000–1.5 million people in solar jobs by 2035. Compared with the approximately 15 GW of solar capacity deployed in 2020, annual solar deployment is 30 GW on average in the early 2020s and grows to 60 GW on average from 2025 to 2030. Similarly substantial solar deployment rates continue in the 2030s and beyond. Deployment rates accelerate for wind and energy storage as well.
- Storage, transmission expansion, and flexibility in load and generation are key to maintaining grid reliability and resilience. Storage capacity expands rapidly, to more than 1,600 GW in 2050. Small-scale solar, especially coupled with storage, can enhance resilience by allowing buildings or microgrids to power critical loads during grid outages. In addition, advances in managing distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar and electric vehicles, are needed to efficiently integrate these resources into the grid.
- Expanding clean electricity supply yields deeper decarbonization. Electricity demand grows by about 30% from 2020 to 2035, owing to electrification of fuel-based building demands (e.g., heating), vehicles, and industrial processes. Electricity demand increases by an additional 34% from 2035 to 2050. By 2050, all these electrified sectors are powered by zero-carbon electricity, and the electrification growth results in an emissions reduction equivalent to 155% of 2005 grid emissions.
- Land availability does not constrain solar deployment. In 2050, 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 benefits of decarbonization far outweigh additional costs incurred. Cumulative power system costs from 2020 to 2050 are $562 billion (25%) higher, which includes the costs of serving electrified loads previously powered through direct fuel combustion. However, avoided climate damages and improved air quality more than offset those additional costs, resulting in net savings of $1.7 trillion.
- Challenges must be addressed so that solar costs and benefits are distributed equitably. Solar deployment can bring jobs, savings on electricity bills, and enhanced energy resilience. Various interventions—financial, community engagement, siting, policy, regulatory, and resilience measures—can improve equity in rooftop solar adoption. Additional equity measures can address the distribution of public and private benefits, the distribution of costs, procedural justice in energy-related decision making, the need for a just workforce transition, and potential negative externalities related to solar project siting and disposal of solar materials.
4 Things We Need To Do
Tech Crunch has looked at the report and concluded there are 4 things that need to happen in order to implement the Biden plan successfully:
Improve Solar Panel Technology: The cost of solar panels today is too high. Continued research and development is needed to halve the cost of photovoltaics. Perovskites, semi-transparent cells that permit agricultural activities beneath them, solar windows — all are areas that researchers need to concentrate their attention. Prices will also drop as manufacturing volumes increase as well.
“Solar concentrators get their own heading in the report, and many companies are looking into these to replace industrial processes. These will not likely be used to support the grid at large but will nevertheless replace many fossil fuel based processes,” Tech Crunch adds.
Increase Energy Storage: Lithium ion batteries alone won’t be enough to store all the electricity created by those new solar facilities. The DOE says, “Thermal, chemical, and mechanical storage technologies are under various stages of development, including pumped thermal storage, liquid air energy storage, novel gravity-based technologies, and geological hydrogen storage.”
Altering the demand curve on the electrical grid will be important, too. That involves shifting some energy intensive functions to daytime operation when there will be an abundance of electricity available so none of that energy gets wasted. Smart grid controls and internet of things algorithms can help balance the load on the grid, as can time of use utility rates that encourage energy users to use electricity wisely.
Reduce Soft Costs: Financial people like to talk about “soft costs.” Purchasing a solar panel is a hard cost. Paying people to process permit applications is considered a soft cost. The distinction may have some academic interest but all the costs associated with bringing a solar power plant online go straight to the bottom line. “Right now the all-in cost of a solar roof might be twice the cost of the hardware or more. There are several contributors to this, from financing to regulations to markets, and each has its own intricacies,” Tech Crunch says.
Many local governments are working to reduce the time and paperwork work required to get a solar project approved, whether it is a 100 MW solar farm or a rooftop solar installation. Soft costs have to paid by somebody. Lowering them will help the solar revolution more forward more quickly.
Employment And Equity: One of the critical assumptions of the Biden proposal is that it will create up to a million or more new jobs. Somebody has to build those solar farms, install those solar roofs, connect all the wires, manage new grid structures with a higher percentage of distributed renewables, and do the hundreds of other tasks needed to make the transition to renewable energy successful.
But that also means those employed in thermal generation may have to learn new skills. The DOE report explicitly states that job training programs and other employment assistance for those workers are an essential part or the program. It also points out that those jobs today are overwhelming held by white males. Social equity will require outreach to underserved communities to ensure all Americans participate in this new sector of the economy.
“The additional half a million to a million jobs (in the solar industry) will almost certainly comprise many brand new companies and sub-industries,” Tech Crunch says. “But the general breakdown so far has been about 65% installation and project development, 25% sales and manufacturing, and the rest in miscellaneous roles.”
There is a lot of hard work to do to make the Biden proposal successful, but the urgency is great. If the forest fires, floods, and heat waves of the past few years have taught us anything, it is that the predictions of climate scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann from 40 years ago were correct. We have fiddled and fussed, stamped our feet, and shaken our fists at the sky to no avail. Global warming is upon us and unless we take realistic actions to limit the rise of average global temperatures now — not decades or centuries from now — we as a species risk being largely eradicated from the face of the Earth.
It’s well past time to take direct, prudent, and effective action. The Biden solar plan is precisely what needs to be done. At this late date, failure is not an option.