From 4% to 45%: Biden sets an ambitious blueprint for solar energy
By Ivan Penn
The Biden administration earlier this week released a blueprint showing how the nation could move toward producing almost half of its electricity from the sun by 2050 — a potentially big step toward fighting climate change but one that would require vast upgrades to the electric grid.
There is little historical precedent for expanding solar energy, which contributed less than 4% of the country’s electricity last year, as quickly as the Energy Department outlined in a new report. To achieve that growth, the country would have to double the amount of solar energy installed every year over the next four years and then double it again by 2030.
Such a large increase, laid out in the report, is in line with what most climate scientists say is needed to stave off the worst effects of global warming. It would require a vast transformation in technology, the energy industry and the way people live.
Wednesday’s report is consistent with climate and energy plans laid out by Biden during his campaign last year, when he said he wanted to bring net planet-warming emissions from the power sector to zero by 2035. He also wants to add hundreds of offshore wind turbines to the seven in U.S. waters. And last month, he announced that he wanted half of all new cars sold be electric by 2030 in a White House event with executives from three of the nation’s largest automakers — a goal that will depend in large part on whether there will be enough places to plug in those cars.
But it is not clear how hard the administration will push to advance solar energy through legislation and regulations. Officials have provided only a broad outline for how they hope to clean up the country’s energy system and its cars and trucks. Many details will ultimately be decided by Congress, which is working on a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a much larger Democratic measure that could authorize $3.5 trillion in federal spending.
Still, the Energy Department said its calculations showed that solar panels had fallen so much in cost that they could produce 40% of the country’s electricity by 2035 — enough to power all American homes — and 45% by 2050.
Getting there will mean trillions of dollars in investments by homeowners, businesses and the government. The electric grid — built for hulking coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants — would have to be almost completely remade with the addition of batteries, transmission lines and other technologies that can soak up electricity when the sun is shining and to send it from one corner of the country to another.
While renewable energy has grown fast, it provides about 20% of the country’s electricity. Natural gas and coal account for about 60%. In February, a division of the Energy Department projected that the share of electricity produced by all renewable sources, including solar, wind and hydroelectric dams, would reach 42% by 2050 based on current trends and policies.
“That kind of quick acceleration of deployment is only going to happen through smart policy decisions,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “That’s the part where having a goal is important, but having clear steps on how to get there is the issue.”
One thing going for the administration is that the cost of solar panels has fallen substantially over the last decade, making them the cheapest source of energy in many parts of the country. The use of solar and wind energy has also grown much faster in recent years than most government and independent analysts had predicted.
“One of the things we’re hoping that people see and take from this report is that it is affordable to decarbonize the grid,” said Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the Solar Energy Technology Office in the Energy Department. “The grid will remain reliable. We just need to build.”
The administration is making the case that the United States needs to act quickly because not doing anything to reduce reliance on fossil fuels also has significant costs, particularly from extreme weather linked to climate change. On Tuesday, on a visit to inspect damage from the intense rainfall caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida in New Jersey and New York, Biden said, “The nation and the world are in peril.”
Some recent natural disasters have been compounded by weaknesses in the energy system. Ida, for example, dealt a huge blow to the electric grid in Louisiana, where hundreds of thousands of people have been without power for days. Last winter, a storm left much of Texas without electricity for days, too. And in California, utility equipment has ignited several large wildfires, killing scores and destroying thousands of homes and businesses.
Biden wants to use tax credits to encourage the use of solar power systems and batteries at homes, businesses and utilities. The administration also wants local governments to make it quicker to obtain permits and build solar projects — in some places it can take months to put panels on a single-family house, for example. And officials want to offer various incentives to utility companies to encourage solar-energy use.
Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s energy secretary, said part of the administration’s strategy would focus on its Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would reward utilities for adding renewable energy to the electric grid, including rooftop solar. Many utility companies have fought against rooftop solar panels because they see a threat to their business and would rather build large solar farms that they own and control.
“Both have to happen, and the utilities will be incentivized to take down the barriers,” Granholm said. “We’ve got to do a series of things.”