Half of U.S. Electricity by 2050: Is Biden for Real

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

As climate change and clean energy have climbed their way up higher on the priority list of the average American, with over 80% of voters in 2020 citing climate change as at least ‘somewhat important,’ the media has increasingly satiated the appetite for related news. Whether breathless reporting on the dire IPCC report on climate or extolling the excitement behind the latest electric vehicle model, major outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times are all pushing out the clean energy news as fast as it’s being made.

So recently, when news broke that the Biden Administration was discussing nearly half of U.S. electricity coming from solar energy by 2050, it was no surprise that major publications sent out alerts to their readers:

Unfortunately, the soundbite media and tendency to click and share without reading elevated conversation about this news to be something that it wasn’t, conflating the report about what was possible with commentary on how the administration was predicting or even mandating nearly half of electricity come by solar by 2045. Those conclusions do not reflect the underwriting of the actual news, though, so to be best informed about these developments it’s imperative to understand what this news actually was saying.

The Study Behind the Headlines: The DOE Solar Futures Report

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) mission is outlined as ensuring “America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.” In reality, much of the direct energy policy surrounding how electricity is generated (whether via tax incentives, mandates, or otherwise) actually comes from the state and local level. One of the main levers that the federal department does take a lead in, though, is in funding and conducting research pertinent to the energy industry today and its outlook for tomorrow. Under this umbrella, DOE published its “Solar Futures Study.”

This DOE study was actually the third output in a series of studies from the Solar Energy Technologies Office and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory seeking to understand the future of solar power in the United States, with this one specifically diving into “solar energy’s role in a decarbonized grid” and “future solar technologies, the solar workforce, and how solar energy might interact with other technologies like storage.”

So, what conclusions are drawn from the Solar Futures Study? The first is the one that made all those headlines. Here’s what it says directly:

“Our decarbonization scenarios envision greater expansion of solar, wind, energy storage, and electric transmission infrastructure. In 2020, about 80 gigawatts (GW) of solar, powered around 3% of U.S. electricity demand. By 2035, the decarbonization scenarios envision cumulative deployment of 760-1,000 GW, serving 37%-42% of electricity demand. By 2050, those scenarios envision cumulative deployment of 1,050-1,570 GW, serving 44%-45% of electricity demand on an energy (MWh) basis.”

To backtrack, this conclusion is only the outcome of the study’s stated decarbonization scenario, which is the scenario modeled with the outcome of reaching 95% reduction in carbon dioxide levels by 2035 and a 100% carbon-free grid by 2050. Under this scenario, the government would enact aggressive policy measures (whether carbon taxes, tax incentives, mandates, or otherwise) and the market situation is assumed to respond with the highest possible cost reduction for associated technologies. This outcome is looking at what could happen should the full court press be placed from every angle with the explicit goal to decarbonize the grid, which includes investment in not only solar but also supportive technologies like grid modernization and expansion, energy storage deployment, and more.

Put another way, the conclusion of 45% solar electricity by 2050 was an outline of what was technologically and economically feasible. This figure did not represent a forecast of what’s necessarily going to happen and it also wasn’t a mandate from the Biden administration that was compelling immediate action towards that goal.

The DOE Futures Study, over 300 pages in length, also digs into many other potential assumptions and outcomes in the U.S. solar sector. Some of the key conclusions of this comprehensive report include:

- The benefits of decarbonizing the grid by 2050 (via solar and other technologies) will cost over $200 billion more than the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, but the additional costs could be recouped via cost savings from improved air quality, avoided climate damages, and improved public health.

- The economic impact of a modern mobilization towards solar deployment would employ a total of 500,000 to 1.5 million workers, up from today’s solar industry that employs 230,000 Americans.

- The advantages of a grid with massive increases to solar penetration would include assisting with the electrification, and thus decarbonization, of the buildings, transportation, and industrial sectors of the economy.

- The domestic supply chain for solar equipment would be bolstered in a rapid deployment of solar energy, but international differences in labor standards and regulations would still create inherent challenges for U.S. manufacturers to remain competitive.

These conclusions are just a selection of the many outcomes researched in the total DOE Solar Futures Report, with much more to unpack in this thorough and forward-looking study. But by getting swept up with just the headline, you would fall into the trap of maybe misunderstanding the study of what was possible with a declaration of what was going to happen or be mandated, while also overlooking some of these other important pieces of information.

What Happens Next: The Future of U.S. Solar

Certain areas of solar energy have suffered from unwarranted hype—the unfortunate overpromise and underdeliver combination—that does more harm than good for the industry as a whole. From the flopping of solar roadways to the failure of the hot company SolarCity soon after Elon Musk bought it, the solar sector has seen its fair share of ‘too good to be true’ stories turn out to indeed to too good to be true. But these overambitious projects, companies, and declarations should not necessarily be a black eye for the potential of solar energy.

While understanding that the DOE Solar Futures Study is simply a review with best possible information about what could happen with the right support provided to the solar sector, the conclusions of this report are not without impact. Energy policy often starts with these types of studies to inform what options are on the table and what actions leaders should take. While the DOE Futures Study wasn’t prescriptive of specific policies, it can be used by future leaders as an outline for the benefits that aggressive clean energy policies can bring and assist in bringing such actions into reality. So, keep an eye in the coming years to who references this study and in what context, especially now that you’re informed about what it does (and doesn’t) state!


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