The Biden administration is out with a new memo that anticipates getting to 40% solar energy in the US by 2035. That might not be in time to settle out this whole thing about catastrophic climate change, but it should put the nation on track to meet the President’s ambitious goal for decarbonizing the nation’s power generation profile. Of course, the devil is in the details, and the big question is whether or not certain elected officials will get with the planet-saving program.
Getting To 40% Solar Energy By 2035
The new memo comes from the US Department of Energy under the title, “Investing in a Clean Energy Future: Solar Energy Research, Deployment, and Workforce Priorities,” which hints at the problem. The impacts of catastrophic climate change are already nipping at the heels of the Earth, and it will take a swift, massive redirection of economic assets to turn the ship around.
The memo cautions that keeping the nation’s existing fleet of nuclear power plants afloat is a key piece of the puzzle, alongside wind power, carbon capture, and something called “clean” hydrogen, which is not necessarily the same as green hydrogen (more on that in a sec).
However, the memo underscores the critical importance of the solar energy factor.
“Solar is the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the nation – growing 4,000 percent over the past decade – and will play an important role in reaching the administration’s goals,” the Energy Department enthuses.
“Large-scale decarbonization of the electricity sector could move solar from 3 percent of generation today to over 40 percent by 2035,” they add.
And now, for the bad news. The Energy Department cites a yet-to-be published analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which calculates that “solar deployment would need to accelerate to three to four times faster than its current rate by 2030,” if the power sector is to be decarbonized by 2035.
“Meeting these goals will require billions in investment and market opportunities through 2050 across clean energy generation, energy storage, electricity delivery, and operations and maintenance – including in low-income and community solar,” the Energy Department explains.
If you caught that thing about “market opportunities,” that’s where state and federal legislation comes into play. Right now the US is a patchwork of solar-loving and solar un-loving jurisdictions. That will have to change if a swift energy transition is to be orchestrated.
Why 40% Solar Energy By 2035 Is Possible
Despite the challenges, the clean power transition is already inevitable. The massive drought in the western US has exposed the shortcomings of over-reliance on power generation technology that relies on water, including hydropower as well as coal, gas, and nuclear energy. The US grid needs to diversify as well as decarbonize while keeping a close eye on the energy-water nexus.
Solar energy is not necessarily a water-free technology, partly due to the need for keeping solar panels free of dust and debris. However, low-water and waterless cleaning technologies are already at hand.
The Energy Department also cites resiliency as a key factor favoring solar power:
“Solar deployed at scale, when combined with energy storage, can make America’s energy supply more resilient, particularly from power disruptions in the event of manmade and natural threats. Smaller-scale solar, as part of microgrids or hybrid plants, can drive greater local self-sufficiency and community-level resilience. Solar with storage solutions can already provide hours of backup power for individual buildings and, in the future, could provide days of backup power and even seasonal stored power. This storage option can help manage the grid, prevent outages, and even restart the grid after a power outage.”
Potholes On The Road To 40%
As for the details, the road to 40% solar energy by 20305 is not going to be a smooth ride.
For example, the memo advocates for continuing to provide tax credits for clean power investment and production, pointing out that they “have been successful tools in helping to expand solar and wind energy generation” by cutting the cost of investing in clean power.
Unfortunately, the production tax credit is set to die at the end of this year, and the investment tax credit will follow it to the grave shortly thereafter unless certain members of Congress (you know who you are) get their act together.
The memo also brings up the need for new electricity transmission lines to transmit all that new solar energy, which is a super duper touchy subject. Anybody remember Clean Line Energy? The company’s ambitious plans for a new network of clean power lines in the US fell to pieces after a few years due to local opposition and state-based legislative roadblocks.
On the plus side, some of those pieces are still clinging to life. Other signs of new transmission line activity have been springing up in recent years, though some of that is occurring in Texas, which has already sunk its hooks deep into new clean power transmission lines.
The Energy Department memo advocates for tax incentives for transmission projects as well as energy storage, but those pesky opponents could halt or delay projects for years to come.
The Once & Future Energy King Is The US
The memo is on more solid ground in the area of innovation and manufacturing, pointing out that “the solar industry has its roots in America, and a key part of lowering the costs of solar involves investing in technology innovation, manufacturing, and the solar supply chain.”
“U.S. research and development has helped lower manufacturing costs, increase efficiency and performance, and improve reliability of solar technologies,” they add.
US innovators are still driving the global market, even though the nation lost its pole position in the solar manufacturing race long ago. According to the Energy Department, its funding stream has supported almost half of worldwide solar cell efficiency records over the past 35 years, in addition to playing a key role in the global concentrating solar power industry.
Not specifically mentioned in the memo is the agency’s long term love affair with perovskite solar cell technology, but it does reference the related field of thin film solar as a means of re-domesticating the solar cell industry, which is important because that would avoid overseas labor issues as well as supply chain issues.
More Solar Power For Everybody
The memo also points out that the solar market in the US is far from saturated. Aside from the potential for growth in the field of luxury and market-rate housing, there is a vast untapped reservoir of potential growth in the low- and moderate-income areas.
“Low- and moderate- income Americans are less likely to adopt solar due to issues like lack of access to financing, which perpetuates energy inequalities and leads to lower overall levels of solar deployment,” DOE explains, adding that “Access to credit is a key barrier to solar adoption for low- and moderate-income households; almost 90 percent of 2018 solar adopters have either prime or super-prime credit scores.”
Addressing the root causes of structural racism in the US would help solve some of that problem, but in the meantime the Energy Department has been doing some of the heavy lifting by promoting the community solar model.
Community solar projects are designed to provide all ratepayers with access to affordable solar power, regardless of whether or not they rent or own property, or what their tax status is (looking at you, non-profits), and if their property can support its own solar panels.
The Energy Department began a concerted effort to promote community solar during the Obama administration. So far the effort has survived the Trump administration and the COVID-19 pandemic, but most of the activity is currently centered in just four states.
On the plus side, the memo notes that some activity is beginning to bubble up in 35 other states and the District of Columbia, indicating the potential for a renewed push. The memo explains that “green banks and other financing mechanisms that invest in community solar can help families and businesses gain access to zero-carbon solar” would help things along, hinting that state and federal legislators still need to get on board with the plan.
What About Green Hydrogen & Solar Energy?
As for “clean” hydrogen, don’t be fooled. Hydrogen is ubiquitous throughout the industrial economy, from fuel to fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, and processed foods. The problem is that almost the entire global supply of hydrogen comes from fossil natural gas, along with a smattering of coal, and no matter which way you turn it, hydrogen is not going away anytime soon.
Fossil energy stakeholders have proposed slapping carbon capture systems onto hydrogen production and calling it “clean,” which would be super funny except when you’re staring into the void of a massive global catastrophe.
The alternative would be to extract hydrogen from other sources, and that is already beginning to happen. For example, interest is coalescing around the use of offshore wind farms to generate electricity for electrolysis systems, which extract hydrogen from water.
A similar feat can be accomplished with onshore wind farms or solar arrays. The missing piece is political will, but keep an eye on that newly recharged bipartisan energy storage caucus in Congress for some movement in that direction.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Image (screenshot): Solar energy memo via US Department of Energy.