Toward Massive Solar Deployment in the United States

Rona Friedby Rona Fried, Ph.D.

The United States must prepare our electric system for massive solar deployment, says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in its recent report, The Future of Solar Energy.

Solar has the best potential to meet humanity’s long-term energy needs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions, MIT researchers say, but we need more effective policies and lower-cost technologies to get there.

Importantly, the report calls for a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and policies that reward solar energy production rather than installations.

It also calls for:

  • Federal research and development (R&D) to advance low-cost, large-scale energy storage technologies
  • Common rules and procedures to permit and connect solar systems to the grid on a regional or national basis
  • Solar leasing to be available in every state
  • Federal tax incentives for solar that are not allowed to expire unless fossil fuel subsidies do.

Alongside technologies and policies that push dramatic growth in solar, fossil fuels will have to be “appropriately penalized for carbon dioxide emissions, with—most likely—substantially reduced subsidies,” according to the report.

Taking RPS Legislation Nationwide

As he has done every year since 2008, Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) introduced legislation this spring to create a national RPS, as MIT recommends above. Arguably the most successful program to grow renewable energy in the United States, the bill elevates RPSs from the state to national level. The largest utilities would be required to generate 30% from renewables by 2030, starting with 8% by 2016 with gradual milestones from there. States could still set higher goals, such as California’s new target of 50% renewable energy by 2030.

Cosponsors include Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Vladan Stevanovic and Andriy Zakutayev

National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists Vladan Stevanovic and Andriy Zakutayev use supercomputers, algorithms, and experiments to find and create materials with the ideal properties for solar cells and other useful products. Image: Dennis Schroeder, NREL PIX 31128

“A strong national RPS would cement this progress and ensure the entire nation contributes to—and reaps benefits from—the clean energy transition,” says the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which analyzed its outcomes.

This policy alone would raise renewable energy levels in the United States—mostly solar and wind— 57% more than our current path and would cut emissions 11% by 2030. Combined with energy efficiency advancements, emissions would drop by half by 2030, according to UCS, and electricity prices would be virtually unchanged.

Solar photovoltaics would expand 13 times from current levels to 152 gigawatts (GW)—almost 30 GW more than business as usual—and wind would reach 180 GW, which is triple today’s levels and 80 GW higher than business as usual.

All of this would create $295 billion in new capital investments ($106 billion more than business as usual), $2.6 billion for local governments through property taxes, and $830 million in lease payments to rural landowners.

More Advanced Solar Technologies Needed

According to the MIT report, in recent years we “have seen rapid growth in installed solar generating capacity, great improvements in technology, price, and performance, and the development of creative business models that have spurred investment in residential solar systems. Nonetheless, further advances are needed to enable a dramatic increase in the solar contribution at socially acceptable costs.”

The report points to the drawbacks of both conventional silicon and thin-film solar and emerging variations that could provide superior performance with lower manufacturing complexity and module costs.

The private sector will likely view these R&D investments as risky, so even though the payoff could be enormous, the federal government must step in, MIT researchers say. “We strongly recommend that a large fraction of federal resources available for solar R&D focus on environmentally benign, emerging thin-film technologies that are based on Earth-abundant materials. The recent shift of federal dollars for solar R&D away from fundamental research of this sort to focus on near-term cost reductions in c-Si technology should be reversed.”

Read MIT’s report at mitei.mit.edu/futureofsolar.

Rona Fried, Ph.D., is president of SustainableBusiness.com, a thought leader on green business known for its daily news and Green Dream Jobs service since 1996.

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