Blueprint For Solar Power

From 4% to 45%: Energy Department Lays Out Ambitious Blueprint for Solar Power

The department’s analysis provides only a broad outline, and many of the details will be decided by congressional lawmakers.

A solar farm in Lennon, Mich. The target for solar energy cited in an Energy Department report is in line with what most climate scientists say is needed.
A solar farm in Lennon, Mich. The target for solar energy cited in an Energy Department report is in line with what most climate scientists say is needed.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Ivan Penn

By Ivan PennSept. 8, 2021Updated 5:15 p.m. ET

The Biden administration on Wednesday 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 percent 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.

The report is consistent with climate and energy plans laid out by President 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 to 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.Keep up with the new Washington — get live updates on politics.

Still, 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.

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 percentby 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.

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