Last week, the Biden Administration announced that solar energy would supply 45% of U.S. electricity by 2050. It’s a highly ambitious goal, considering that solar currently provides only about 3% of current U.S. electricity production. So the question arises, just how will we get there?
Solar energy installations will have to double from 2020 levels every year until 2025 and then quadruple every year until 2030 to get to 40% of U.S. electricity. That’s a lot of solar panels! In addition to solar panels, we will need significant developments in grid flexibility, energy storage, and transmission expansion. Meeting President Biden’s zero-emission goals is also projected to raise electricity prices by 25%.
Installing solar panels at this scale will be a significant challenge to the industry. In addition to constraints within the bulk electric system, the supply of these panels is just not keeping pace with demand. Skyrocketing steel and aluminum prices are causing delays and higher costs for new panels. If these prices continue to rise, the costs to consumers could be severe.
So how will the industry respond when installations need to double and eventually quadruple?
“……We need to at least think about the grid’s limits when designing solar policy,” says Anna Brockway, lead author of the Nature study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. “If we totally ignore them, then our policy goals are essentially detached from the reality of the infrastructure we’re operating.”
In many parts of the U.S., mainly rural and disadvantaged areas, the power grid needs upgrades and often lacks the requisite capacity to accommodate new solar arrays. Compounding issues is a lack of adequate energy storage. As California learned the hard way last year, adding too much solar without sufficient backup power can result in blackouts.
Energy storage has made significant progress in recent years, but costs remain high. As we’ve noted in numerous articles, pumped hydro is still the most affordable and reliable form of storage, accounting for 95% of all energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries are growing in popularity but still cost around $162 per kilowatt-hour. In July, these costs led the Biden Administration to announce its Energy Storage Shot initiative to reduce energy storage costs by 90% over the next decade.
“This is a reality check for those who tend to take a naïve approach to the adoption of renewable energy resources without considering the technical difficulties involved,” writes Antonio Moreno-Muñoz, an electronics engineer at the University of Cordoba.
We agree. While investing in renewables such as solar is a worthy goal, our elected officials must consider power grid constraints and ensure their goals align with providing affordable, reliable, and resilient power to consumers.