The Joe Biden administration made waves earlier this week when it indicated that solar energy could cover 40 percent of the nation’s electric power grid by 2035. It is easy to meet news like that with disbelief, considering the minuscule toehold currently enjoyed by solar energy. However, a significant new factor is now in play. The catastrophic impacts of climate change hit the U.S. with full force this year, providing corporate leaders with a powerful incentive to lobby for a swift, aggressive transition to clean power. Settling for incremental change is not an option when floods, fires, habitat destruction, and water scarcity destroy communities and disrupt business.
What the U.S. Department of Energy really said about 40 percent solar energy by 2035
The 40 percent solar energy goalpost comes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s new Solar Futures Study, prepared by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in support of President Biden’s ambitious decarbonization goals.
Shortly after taking office, the president announced the goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a “net zero emissions economy” by 2050.
That’s a heavy lift for renewable energy in general and solar energy in particular. Despite a skyrocketing rush of activity in recent years, solar currently accounts for just 3 percent of the U.S. electricity grid.
The Solar Futures Study does not actually make the case that the U.S. solar energy industry is currently on a trajectory to achieve the 40 percent milestone. Rather, NREL outlines the factors that would enable solar energy to account for a 40 percent share of the grid by 2035, with the remainder taken up by other carbon-free resources.
The solar energy model described by NREL anticipates that some of the tools for rapid expansion are already in hand. That includes new grid management and forecasting equipment, advanced energy storage technology, and next-generation solar hardware including new inverters as well as more efficient, less costly solar cells.
The Solar Futures Study also recognizes that the 40 percent goal is unreachable without the support of policies aimed at raising the cost of carbon emissions and lowering the cost of clean power.
NREL also anticipates the need for new power lines, and that could be a major stumbling block. For example, opposition to new interstate transmission lines has been holding back wind development in some states for many years. On the brighter side, new intrastate solar transmission proposals are beginning to emerge in parts of the U.S., indicating a pathway for solar projects to move forward in at least some cases.
Gearing up for the 40 percent solar workforce of 2035
Assembling a trained solar workforce may turn out to be a bigger obstacle than technology or transmission lines. NREL’s solar energy model anticipates that 500,000 to 1.5 million people will need to be employed in the U.S. solar industry nationwide by 2035 in order to reach the 40 percent grid penetration mark. The low end of that scale is more than double the current solar employment figure of 230,000 as of 2020.
There are already some encouraging signs that the U.S. solar energy industry is prepared to ratchet up its workforce. One example is the industry’s head start on recruiting solar workers through the Solar Ready Vets network, a Barack Obama-era initiative that continued to grow throug the Donald Trump administration.
Solar Ready Vets partners the Energy Department with the nonprofit Solar Foundation, which recently merged with the clean energy organization IREC. The program is designed to encourage veterans to apply their skillsets to solar jobs. In 2018 the program expanded to include solar training opportunities for active duty military personnel, too.
The waning years of the U.S. fossil energy industry could also provide a rich pool of recruits for the solar industry. Earlier this year, the United Mine Workers of America took a step in that direction by pressing the case for including displaced coal workers in the clean energy transition, in addition to preserving coal jobs.
Automation and other technology advances may also help trim the need for power plant workers. That trend is already apparent in the natural gas industry, where the utility company DTE anticipates that just 35 employees will be needed to run a proposed 1.1 gigawatt gas power plant in Michigan.
In that regard, the solar industry already appears to have an advantage. One example recently pointed out by Forbes is a new 1.3 gigawatt solar energy plant in Texas. After the 600-strong construction workforce finishes up, just 12 full-time employees will be needed to run the site.
Storm clouds on the solar energy horizon … or not
Last week the financial consulting firm Morningstar provided another perspective on the prospects for rapid decarbonization across all energy sectors in a new report titled, “Can the U.S. Reach Net-Zero Emissions?”
The short answer is not any time soon. Morningstar cites a list of constraints on renewable energy development in the U.S., including “financing, manufacturing, and developing the number of wind and solar projects” among other issues.
In terms of electricity generation, though, the Morningstar report does offer a glimmer of hope. As noted by Morningstar, the U.S. has already made notable progress on decarbonization, and it is one of just three high-emission nations to significantly cut carbon emissions while increasing GDP on a per-capita basis over the past 20 years. Identifying the factors leading to that achievement could help lay the groundwork for future acceleration.
One of those factors appears to be the nation’s network of public and private utilities.
“Utilities, which link energy producers and consumers, will play a leading role in cutting energy sector greenhouse gas emissions, which are 80 percent of U.S. economywide greenhouse gases,” the Morningstar report reads. “Utilities have already helped the energy sector cut emissions by 26 percent since 2005 by increasing renewable energy, using more natural gas, and retiring coal plants.”
Though Morningstar still anticipates a “huge gap” between 2030 and the president’s 2035 goal, the events of the past several years have shown that new factors are constantly popping up to shift energy forecasts.
One such example is the exploding green hydrogen trend, which in effect transforms solar energy into a store-able gas that can be transported by highways, railways and pipelines. That opens up new opportunities for solar development without new transmission lines.
The nation’s offshore wind industry could also become an accelerating factor. Offshore wind developers are beginning to explore the possibility of co-locating wind turbines with floating solar panels. If the idea proves to be commercially viable, it could open up vast new areas for solar development.
As an additional attraction, offshore solar could help reduce the need to build new interstate transmission lines. A key advantage of the offshore wind industry is its ability to build offshore wind farms in proximity to energy-hungry coastal cities, and the same benefit would apply to co-located offshore solar.
All in all, the opportunities for rapid decarbonization are falling into place. The only missing piece is political will, and that is an area in which corporate leaders can exercise a powerful influence, if they choose.
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