The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) today released the Solar Futures Study detailing the significant role solar will play in decarbonizing the nation’s power grid. The study shows that by 2035, solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the nation’s electricity, drive deep decarbonization of the grid, and employ as many as 1.5 million people—without raising electricity prices. The study’s findings call for massive and equitable deployment of clean energy sources, underscoring the Biden Administration’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and rapidly increase access to renewable power throughout the country.
“The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Achieving this bright future requires a massive and equitable deployment of renewable energy and strong decarbonization polices—exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.”
DOE Releases Solar Futures Study Providing the Blueprint for a Zero-Carbon Grid
The U.S. Department of Energy today released the Solar Futures Study detailing the significant role solar will play in decarbonizing the nation’s power grid. The study shows that by 2035, solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the nation’s electricity, drive deep decarbonization of the grid, and employ as much as 1.5 million people—without raising electricity prices. The study’s findings call for massive and equitable deployment of clean energy sources, underscoring the Biden Administration’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and rapidly increase access to renewable power throughout the country.
“The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “Achieving this bright future requires a massive and equitable deployment of renewable energy and strong decarbonization polices – exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.” Read more
From 4% to 45%: Biden Offers Ambitious Blueprint for Solar Energy: The Energy Department analysis provides only a broad outline, and many of the details will be decided by congressional lawmakers. 272
By Ivan Penn, NYTimes.com, Sept. 8, 2021
The Biden administration on Wednesday released a blueprint for producing almost half of the nation’s electricity from the sun by 2050 — something that would require the country to double the amount of solar energy installed every year over the next four years and then double it again by 2030.
The expansion of solar energy is part of President Biden’s effort to fight climate change, but there would be little historical precedent for increasing solar energy, which contributed less than 4 percent of the country’s electricity last year, that quickly.
Such a large increase, laid out in an Energy Department 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.
The Energy Department said its calculations showed that solar panels had fallen so much in cost that they could produce 40 percent of the country’s electricity by 2035 — enough to power all American homes — and 45 percent 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.
The new report is consistent with climate and energy plans laid out by Mr. 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 currently in American 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 plugs in those cars.
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But administration 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.
While renewable energy has grown fast, it provides about 20 percent of the country’s electricity. Natural gas and coal account for about 60 percent. 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 percent 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, the 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, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 M. Granholm, Mr. 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,” Ms. Granholm said. “We’ve got to do a series of things.”
Challenges like trade disputes could also complicate the push for solar power. China dominates the supply chain for solar panels, and the administration recently began blocking imports connected with the Xinjiang region of China over concerns about the use of forced labor. While many solar companies say they are working to shift away from materials made in Xinjiang, energy experts say the import ban could slow the construction of solar projects throughout the United States in the short term.
Still, administration officials pointed to changes being made by state and local officials as an example of how the country could begin to move faster toward renewable energy. Regulators in California, for example, are changing the state’s building code to require solar and batteries in new buildings.
Another big area of focus for the administration is greater use of batteries to store energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines for use at night or when the wind is not blowing. The cost of batteries has been falling but remains too high for a rapid shift to renewables and electric cars, according to many analysts.
To some solar industry officials, the Energy Department report ought to help to focus people’s minds on what is possible even if lawmakers haven’t worked out the details.
“In essence the D.O.E. is saying America needs a ton more solar, not less, and we need it today, not tomorrow,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association, which represents solar developers in the state with by far the largest number of solar installations. “That simple call to action should guide every policymaking decision from city councils to legislatures and regulatory agencies across the country.”
Brad Plumer contributed reporting.
To Meet Paris Accord Goal, Most of the World’s Fossil Fuel Reserves Must Stay in the Ground
A new study in Nature reports that oil, gas and coal production must begin falling immediately to have even a 50 percent chance of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
By Nicholas KusnetzSeptember 8, 2021
Oil pump jacks operate at the Inglewood Oil Field in Culver City, California, on July 11, 2021. Credit: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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After a summer of weather extremes that highlighted the urgency of limiting global warming in starkly human terms, new research is clarifying what it will take to do so. In order to have just a 50 percent chance of meeting the most ambitious climate target, the study found, the production of all fossil fuels will need to start declining immediately, and a significant majority of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves will have to remain underground over the next few decades.
While the research, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, is only the latest to argue that meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement goals to limit warming requires a rapid pivot to clean energy, it lays out with clear and specific figures exactly how far from those targets the world remains.
“The inescapable evidence that hopefully we’ve shown and that successive reports have shown is that if you want to meet 1.5 degrees, then global production has to start declining,” said Daniel Welsby, a researcher at University College London, in the United Kingdom, and the study’s lead author. As part of the Paris Agreement, nations agreed to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.
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The study found that nearly 60 percent of global oil and gas reserves and about 90 percent of coal reserves must be left unexploited by 2050, though a portion of those fuels could be produced in the second half of the century. Total oil and gas production must begin declining immediately, the research said, and continue falling at about 3 percent annually through 2050. Coal production must fall at an even steeper rate.
While the authors noted a few signs of change, including that coal production is already on the decline, the current course is far off what’s needed. In March, the International Energy Agency warned that oil production was on track to rebound from a pandemic-driven dip and would surpass 2019 levels within a couple of years. That projection came on the heels of a separate report in December by the United Nations Environment Program, which said energy producing countries are set to expand fossil fuel output for years.
The new paper builds on these studies and other related work to estimate the “unextractable” portion of the fossil fuel stores that are currently considered profitable to exploit—so-called proven reserves. Put another way, the research effectively says that most of the fossil fuels that energy companies currently list as financial assets, or that governments report as strategic ones, would be rendered worthless if the world is to have a shot at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“It is abundantly clear from this and other work that the conversation now is about declining production, it’s about leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground,” said Greg Muttitt, senior policy adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a think tank. Muttitt was not involved in the new research, though he is working on a separate paper with some of the authors.
A 2015 study, which shares a co-author with the new paper, ran a similar experiment geared toward limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit)—the amount that countries in the Paris Agreement committed to keep global warming “well below.” The new work shows that roughly twice as much oil would have to be left unexploited by 2050 to have a 50 percent chance of reaching the more ambitious 1.5 degree target.
Regions Vary in How Quickly They Must Slow Production
By looking primarily at the cost of production in different parts of the world, the new research provided regional estimates, too, and found significant variation. The Middle East, with its vast stores of oil and gas, would have to leave massive quantities undeveloped. But because its reserves are so large, and its production costs so low, the region would take on an even more dominant role in the world’s future supply.
Canada—where most of the oil reserves are found in the tar sands, which are expensive and polluting to produce—would see more than 80 percent of its reserves go undeveloped, by far the largest share.
The United States is the only region that would see oil production increase from current levels, to about where it was before the pandemic, before peaking within a few years and then declining steadily. U.S. natural gas production, however, would see an immediate and sharp decline in the paper’s scenario as renewable energy sources displace gas for generating electricity.
The paper found less regional variation for coal, which emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil or gas. The vast majority of coal reserves would need to be left underground in nearly every region.
The authors said their findings make the case for restricting production by removing subsidies, imposing new taxes or even by prohibiting mining and drilling.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to end new fossil fuel leasing on public lands, and his administration is currently conducting a review of the nation’s oil and gas leasing program that could result in higher royalty rates and other restrictive measures. Congressional Democrats are considering legislation that could scale back or eliminate federal subsidies for fossil fuel production, or even implement new fees or taxes on major producers. Other countries, including Denmark and Costa Rica, have begun banning or phasing out production.
The paper also highlights the risks to governments that are highly dependent on fossil fuels for revenue if they don’t diversify their economies.
The same could be said for private companies and investors in the fossil fuel industry, said Mike Coffin, who is a senior analyst at the climate and financial think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, which has conducted similar research but was not involved in the new paper.
“The drastic change that’s going to have to happen is going to make those business models unviable,” Coffin said.
At a briefing covering the research, co-author James Price said their findings, as dramatic as they may seem, probably underestimate the volume of fossil fuels that must be left unexploited. Their modeling is aimed toward achieving only a 50 percent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, he said.
“If we want a higher chance,” Price said, “then we have to of course keep more carbon in the ground.”
Beyond probabilities, however, he said their model assumes that carbon capture technologies and natural processes like forest regeneration will be able to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere later this century to compensate for some of the fossil fuels the world continues to burn, even though there remain significant questions about the scale of those practices that is feasible.
“This dependency introduces a risk of underestimating just how rapid the decarbonization needs to be,” Price said.
Nicholas Kusnetz, Nicholas Kusnetz is a reporter for Inside Climate News. Before joining ICN, he worked at the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica. His work has won numerous awards, including from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including The Washington Post, Businessweek, The Nation, Fast Company and The New York Times. You can reach Nicholas at firstname.lastname@example.org and securely at email@example.com.