The Department of Energy came out on Wednesday with a new report entitled Solar Futures. The study shows that by 2035, solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the nation’s electricity and drive deep decarbonization of the grid. A reporter recently asked me whether that’s feasible and what needs to happen to make it so. Here’s where I ended up.
My answer to the feasibility question is in one word: “Very.” We have 14 years before we hit 2035. We can achieve 40% solar and we don’t need revolutionary new policy to make it happen. But we do need a steady hand on the tiller to point America in the direction of growing renewables.
Here’s why I’m confident that big growth in solar over the next 14 years is possible.
Solar energy is incredibly abundant. Across America, the sun shines on our roofs, parking lots, fields and forests. This free limitless energy source comes to every American community every day. We just need the will to put solar collectors under more of the sun’s rays to produce electricity. The constraints are not technical. In fact, using today’s technology, America could repower itself 75 times over from the sun. So the 40% solar ambition that the Department of Energy lays out in this new report is really very doable.
Solar is growing. Thanks in part to supportive policies, over the past decade solar adoption has skyrocketed. In 2010, less than 1/10 of 1% of America’s energy came from solar. In 2019, it was almost 3%. There’s no doubt that getting up to 40% over the next 15 years will require solar to continue to grow in a major way, and thankfully the industry is positioned to do that.
As solar adoption has grown, the costs of going solar have plummeted and the technology has gotten better. Utility scale solar costs have come down 90% and rooftop solar 60% over the past decade. And widespread deployment has led to technological improvements. Solar panels being installed today are 37% more efficient at converting the sun’s rays to electricity than they were 10 years ago.
Also, solar growth isn’t happening in a vacuum. At the same time that America is deploying solar panels, we’re also making homes and businesses more energy efficient. Energy efficiency and electrification have the potential to cut energy use in half by 2050. By reducing the amount of energy we use overall, it makes it that much easier to get more of the energy we need to power our lives from renewable sources like the sun.
What we need now is a steady hand on the tiller to grow clean energy
Powering 40% of our country with clean renewable energy from the sun doesn’t require drastic policy changes, but it does require long-term commitment to renewable energy through policies that help make solar panels, battery storage and other clean energy technologies available to more Americans.
Congress should act now to extend and expand federal clean energy tax credits for solar and other renewable technologies with a 10-year horizon. That’s the kind of signal the market needs from Washington to feel comfortable making major investments. And Americans support these kinds of tax credits that put renewable energy in the reach of more Americans. Our tax dollars should not prop up oil drilling, but help more Americans go solar.
States can and should set goals to achieve 100% renewable energy and adopt specific requirements for solar energy adoption and then back those goals up with policies that encourage solar. Minnesota recently set aside money to put solar on schools, and New Jersey recently put in place a financing program to help commercial buildings go solar. These are the policies that grow clean energy and we need more of them across the country.
States need to adopt and preserve strong statewide interconnection, net metering and virtual net metering policies that take into account the true value that rooftop solar, batteries and other distributed energy sources offer the grid.
If you want to help make sure Congress acts, take action here.
In the past 14 years, solar has been propelled from a cottage industry to one of the fastest growing energy technologies. The next 14 years have the potential to take it from a leading technology to among the most widely adopted. It just takes a suite of policies — foremost modernized and extended incentives — to propel that progress.
Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate.