The NCSL Blog

16

By Christopher McMichael

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has sparked debate over the potential for solar power to produce nearly half of the nation’s electricity by 2050—an immense and complicated goal for a technology that currently accounts for only 3% of power generation.  

power lines, solar, windThe DOE’s Solar Futures Study details the role that solar energy can play in decarbonizing the nation’s power sector and provides a blueprint to deploy the technology, calling for solar power to generate 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035 and 45% by 2050.

For context, the U.S. installed a record 15 gigawatts (GW) of solar power in 2020. In order to reach the study’s targets, the nation would need to double that record level of deployment annually through 2025, quadruple it between 2025 and 2030 and ramp up at a similar rate to a total of 1600 GW of solar by 2050 to achieve a zero-carbon grid.

The study has led experts to weigh in on the feasibility of reaching such ambitious targets. Questions have been raised regarding the massive deployment of solar energy sources and infrastructure needed to reach the goals laid out in the study.

Such aggressive deployment would also require a modernized and resilient grid, upgraded storage capacity and technology, a revamped supply chain, the acquisition of land and siting of facilities, among other issues. Nevertheless, the study maintains that these issues can be addressed on the way to reaching those mid-century targets.

A rapid and massive shift in solar energy deployment would require legislative support at both the state and federal level. Renewable Portfolio Standards have been effective state policies at driving renewable energy transition and have contributed to about half of the growth in U.S. renewable energy generation since the early 2000s. State public utility commission policies can also play a role in driving clean energy capacity and grid decarbonization. Emissions reduction and market-based incentives could also be an effective tool for promoting decarbonization.

Solar energy deployment would also need robust federal support to drive the deployment of renewable energy sources at the level proposed by the study. Similar to Renewable Portfolio Standards, the federal Clean Electricity Payment Policy recently proposed in the $3.5 trillion federal reconciliation bill, could play a pivotal role in incentivizing and accelerating a clean energy build-out. Over 700 solar energy companies recently penned a letter to congress asking for a long-term extension of the solar investment tax credit and other federal support.

A modernized and resilient grid would be necessary to meet the growing demands of the energy sector and the deployment of new energy sources. For example, the study anticipates that small-scale solar and microgrids will be essential to power increased loads or supply power during outages. Additionally, the management of distributed energy resources, microgrids and electric vehicles would have to be integrated more seamlessly into bulk power grid operations.

Energy storage capacity would also have to increase 70 times from the current installed capacity, according to the study. There is set to be a record amount of battery storage installed and billions of dollars worth of investment in storage technologies in 2021.

Additional issues relate to the logistical problems created by ramping up demand and production of solar energy. For instance, land acquisition poses challenges for the scale of solar development needed to decarbonize the grid, but the study maintains that the siting of solar facilities is not a significant constraint since solar facilities could be sited on disturbed or already contaminated lands.

Supply-side constraints amidst the growing demand for solar could pose significant barriers. The cost of obtaining raw materials, such as steel and aluminum, which have already led to climbing solar-project prices this year, and insufficient manufacturing capacity could threaten the deployment of solar energy sources.

Ultimately, the Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study is the most comprehensive review to date of the potential role of solar in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity grid. While the study does not advocate for the adoption of any specific policies or programs, it does lay out a detailed blueprint regarding energy transition and paints decarbonization by 2050 as a realistic goal.

The DOE is continuing to study the opportunities for a clean energy transition reliant on solar energy. The department recently released two requests for information seeking input on the use of solar energy to decarbonize industrial processes and on the impacts of solar development on wildlife and ecosystems.

Additional NCSL Resources:

Christopher McMichael is a policy associate in NCSL’s energy program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.