The US has not always had a spotless reputation when it comes to clean energy. Despite the American public generally agreeing that more drastic action needs to be taken on climate change, lawmakers have vetoed even the flimsiest of proposals to tackle it, opting instead to roll back hundreds of laws designed to protect the environment. Although the new administration has managed to turn the tide back to renewables recently, they still account for only twelve percent of energy consumption in the US.
But that could all change, and pretty quickly, according to a new report from the Department of Energy. They found that solar energy alone could supply 40 percent of the country’s electricity by 2035 – a more than tenfold increase over current levels. The best part? It wouldn’t cost a penny more for consumers.
“Solar [is] our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in a statement Wednesday. “[It] could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process.”
There’s just one small caveat: this would require a huge shift in national policy and billions of dollars of infrastructure renovation. The US would need to increase its annual solar capacity from 2020’s (record-breaking!) 15 gigawatts up to 1000 gigawatts in 2035, and modernize its power grid to become renewable-dominated.
On top of that, Congress would need to pass radical climate change legislation – what the report calls a “concerted policy effort” – and introduce incentives to promote renewable energy use. Those are something that Democrats have been pushing for, but their success is far from certain.
However, the payoff from these admittedly ambitious targets could be huge, according to the report. The levels forecast exceed even the hopes of the solar industry itself, and by 2050 it could produce more electricity than is currently consumed in all residential and commercial buildings in the entire country. When combined with other forms of renewable energy like hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power, the report showed that even an entirely carbon-free US power grid was achievable.
That’s very good news for President Biden, who has repeatedly committed to reducing the US reliance on carbon. Back in January, he announced plans to decarbonize 80 percent of the US power grid by 2035, aiming for full decarbonization by 2050. Speaking Tuesday at a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Ida, Biden reiterated that “We can't turn [climate change] back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.”
“We don't have any more time,” he added.
Nevertheless, achieving the vision set out in the new report won't be easy. Annual solar generating capacity would need to be quadrupled and increased yearly from then on. It’s important to note that the report isn’t an official policy or government goal – it’s really more of a hypothetical road map, explained Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the Energy Department's solar energy technologies office, designed “to guide and inspire the next decade of solar innovation by helping us answer questions like: How fast does solar need to increase capacity and to what level?”
“It is now possible to envision – and chart a path toward – a future where solar provides 40 percent of the nation's electricity by 2035,” Jones-Albertus wrote in her introduction to the report. “This growth is necessary to limit the impacts of climate change, and our work to realize this vision could not be more urgent.”