Getting solar power from around 4% of the the nation’s electricity to 40% by 2035 will take a genuine national mobilization that adds 30 gigawatt hours of solar capacity each year. But if it’s not done, the U.S. will not reach the goals already set for reducing carbon emissions. In the process, the U.S. would create between 500,000 and 1.5 million solar-related jobs, retake a leadership position in solar power, greatly reduce greenhouse gases, create a much more flexible and reliable power grid, and not see an increase in electricity prices. All of which sounds like a goal that any nation should strive toward.
President Joe Biden describes the vast expansion of solar as a “monumental achievement.” That’s true. And it won’t be the kind of “monument” that future generations have to look on in shame. However, don’t expect the move to solar to be unchallenged. Not only will fossil fuels use every option to hold onto the gravy train they’ve been riding for a century, the framing of the move to solar as a cost, rather than a huge savings, is something that will need to be combatted at every turn.
On the whole, a lot of the media coverage of the Solar Futures Study has been remarkably balanced. While CBS News starts off saying that reaching the goals set forth would require “new policies and billions in federal funds,” it also follows up by saying including the report’s conclusion that the results would “save trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives by slowing climate change and reducing the detrimental health effects of air pollution.”
But a lot of the coverage has not. For example, The New York Times devotes a good portion of its article on the report focusing on the difficulty. It also simply skips over the numbers in the report to say that, “Getting there will mean trillions of dollars in investments by homeowners, businesses, and the government,” throwing the burden of everything that has to happen to update the aging energy grid onto the shoulders of increasing solar. Readers have to get 11 paragraphs in to find any mention of climate, and even then it’s presented as something being pushed by the Biden administration. Other than saying that storms like Ida have caused damage to the electrical grid, there is no mention of the savings that would be generated through limiting the climate crisis. There’s no discussion of the need to meet goals on reducing greenhouse gases.
And rather than focus on the 500,000 to 1.5 million jobs the changeover to solar would create, here’s how the Times frames it:
Building and installing enough solar panels to generate up to 45 percent of the country’s power needs will strain manufacturers and the energy industry, increasing demand for materials like aluminum, silicon, steel, and glass. The industry will also need to find and train tens of thousands of workers and quickly. Some labor groups have said that in the rush to quickly build solar farms, developers often hire lower-paid nonunion workers rather than the union members Mr. Biden frequently champions.
Get that? Increasing U.S. manufacturing would be a “strain” and hiring hundreds of thousands of workers is a threat to union workers. That’s the kind of negative framing that does not happen by accident.
Meanwhile, over at The Washington Post, the focus is on an actual factory in Ohio working to expand production to meet a surging demand. There’s also a much more nuanced discussion of how many current solar panels are coming out of China, the concerns about the connection of those panels to violations of human rights, and the need to create more panels—and more jobs—in the United States if solar is going to grow rapidly. That includes a detailed look at a U.S. company set to build “new factories in the Toledo area” and how that company produces its panels from a seemingly exotic material—cadmium telluride—without needing to open a single new mine. It actually sources all the material it needs from the byproducts of producing copper and zinc.
The Post story isn’t all feel-good. There’s a real discussion of how difficult it will be for the U.S. to generate the panels necessary to meet the goals of the report, and how panels imported from China are still likely to end up on a lot of U.S. rooftops to meet immediate goals. That’s all true.
Changing the U.S. electrical sources from fossil fuels to renewables is one of the largest changes that’s occurred on an industrial front over the last 200 years. Pretending that it won’t have vast consequences, some of them unforeseen, is silly. However, it is even sillier to ignore the thing we can see coming: the devastating results of the climate crisis if we do not make this change.
Solar is now the cheapest form of electricity. Not only is new solar cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuel plant, new solar can also be added at a cost substantially lower than simply maintaining an existing coal plant. A utility that had an existing 100 megawatt coal-powered plant could build 100 megawatts of solar, idle the coal plant, and save money. Wind power will also play an expanding role in the energy future—it currently produces almost three times as much electricity in the U.S. as solar—but the analysis shows that solar still has enormous potential to get still cheaper, and it can be sited directly where needed on homes and factories in areas where wind may not be viable.
Solar is already growing quickly. It wasn’t until 2014 that solar reached 1% of U.S. electricity production, and most of that came from utility-scale solar thermal plants that use mirrors to generate steam that turns turbines. Since then, most of the growth has come from photovoltaics that directly convert light into electricity—the larger version of the “solar cells” found on everything from calculators to garden lights.
Materials for these cells are ubiquitous, and while there are certainly some locations where power is generated at a higher rate (i.e. sunny southwest locations crank out more power per panel than a drippy spot in the Northwest or a location in New England), there are few locations in the U.S. where solar is not an effective, and cheap, solution.
In addition to additional solar production, there will be a greatly expanded need for energy storage for that inconveniently dark part of each day. The report acknowledges that to meet the goals, technological advances are needed both when it comes to production and storage. Fortunately, some of those advances seem to be on their way.
Note: The 2.3% solar currently reported by the EIA undersells the current state of solar by about 1.5%. That’s because their numbers are strictly the electricity generated by “utility scale” installations and don’t include production used on site by homes or factories with rooftop solar. Over time, that gap is expected to grow much larger.