DOE Study Predicts Solar’s Future

A male worker installing solar panels
Published On
Sep 13, 2021

In early September, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) “Solar Futures Study.” According to the study, solar energy could account for as much as 40% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2035 and 45% by 2050, provided there are aggressive cost reductions, supportive policies and large-scale electrification.

Preliminary modeling by the DOE shows that decarbonizing the entire U.S. energy system could result in as much as 3,200 gigawatts (GW) of alternating current of solar power, due to increased electrification of buildings, transportation and industrial energy and production of clean fuels.

In 2020, about 80 GW satisfied around 3% of U.S. electricity demand. By 2035, the report’s decarbonization scenarios show cumulative solar deployment of 760 to 1,000 GW, serving 37%–42% of demand, with the remainder being met largely by other zero-carbon resources, including wind (36%), nuclear (11%–13%), hydroelectric (5%–6%) and biopower/geothermal (1%).

By 2050, according to the report, cumulative solar deployment could reach 1,050 to 1,570 GW, serving 44%–45% of electricity demand, with the remainder met by wind (40%–44%), nuclear (4%–5%), hydropower (3%–5%), combustion turbines run on zero-carbon synthetic fuels such as hydrogen (2%–4%) and biopower/geothermal (1%).

However, to reach these levels, solar deployment will need to grow by an average of 30 GW each year between now and 2025 and ramp up to 60 GW per year between 2025 and 2030 (which would be four times its current deployment rate) to total 1,000 GW of solar deployed by 2035. By 2050, solar capacity would need to reach 1,600 GW to achieve a zero-carbon grid with enhanced electrification of end-uses, such as motor vehicles, building spaces and water heating.

Additional key findings of the study include:

  • Continued technological progress in solar, as well as wind, energy storage and other technologies, are critical to achieving cost-effective grid decarbonization and greater economy-wide decarbonization.
  • Solar can facilitate deep decarbonization of the U.S. electrical grid by 2035 without increasing electricity prices if certain technological advances are made.
  • For the period of 2020 to 2050, the benefits of achieving decarbonization with the studied scenarios far outweigh any additional costs incurred.
  • Land acquisition may be a challenge for deploying solar, but overall land availability does not constrain it in the scenarios studied.
  • It will be important to distribute the costs and benefits in an equitable manner throughout the U.S. grid.

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