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The Biden administration said that solar power could provide 40 per cent of the US’s electricity within 15 years — up from just 3 per cent — in a study that bolsters the case for new clean-energy policies set to be debated in spending bills before Congress.
The scenario would be required as part of an aggressive push to cut carbon emissions from an electric grid that at present relies heavily on natural gas and coal.
The study, released on Wednesday by the US Department of Energy, found that solar power supply could be swiftly expanded without increasing electricity prices while creating as many as 1.5m jobs.
But it would depend on “aggressive cost reductions, supportive policies, and large-scale electrification,” in which energy uses such as building heat and transport no longer rely on directly burning fossil fuels.
The administration is pushing hard to win Congressional support for a $3.5tn budget plan that includes measures designed to meet the president’s targets of net zero emissions by 2050 and a fully carbon-free domestic electricity industry by 2035.
The package could feature new tax credits for investment in renewable energy generation, storage and transmission, as well as a Clean Electricity Payment Programme to prod utilities to shift to greener power.
“Achieving this bright future requires a massive and equitable deployment of renewable energy and strong decarbonisation policies,” said Jennifer Granholm, US secretary of energy.
Utilities, independent power producers and property owners have accelerated installations of solar photovoltaic systems around the US.
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About 15 gigawatts of solar power capacity was installed last year, most of it at large “utility-scale” projects, according to the US Energy Information Administration, an independent analytical wing of the Department of Energy. In a separate forecast released Wednesday, the EIA said utility-scale solar capacity would grow by 15.9GW in 2021 and 16.3GW in 2022, based on current policies.
This pace is far slower than what is necessary to meet US decarbonisation targets. The energy department’s solar study said that additions must hit 30GW a year in the next five years and 60GW a year between 2025 and 2030 to meet policy goals.
The scenario would bring cumulative US solar capacity to between 760GW-1,000GW by 2035, up from about 80GW last year, the study said.
The study said the reduction in emissions achieved by a decarbonised grid would yield savings of $1.1tn to $1.7tn, while the costs of the new power would be “fully offset by savings from technological improvements”.
But without supportive policy, emissions from the grid would fall by only 60 per cent in the next 15 years, the energy department said.
It added: “Continued technological advances that lower the cost of solar energy are also necessary to enable widespread solar deployment.”
Large-scale solar farms are typically built on open land. The study said that in 2050, ground-based solar projects would require a maximum area equivalent to 0.5 per cent of the US excluding Alaska and Hawaii. However, the study said that the country contained more than adequate “disturbed lands” on which to build.
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