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Solar could provide nearly half of U.S. electricity by 2050, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy. (Photo: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Climate Groups Welcome Biden Solar Blueprint But Urge Quicker Energy Transition

Highlighting recent damage from extreme weather, one group said that "30-year timelines are completely unrealistic."

Jessica Corbett

While welcoming the Biden administration's new blueprint showing how solar energy could produce nearly half of U.S. electricity by 2050, climate campaigners on Wednesday also pointed to damage from recent fires and floods as evidence of the need for more rapid and sweeping systemic reforms.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) notably released the new Solar Futures Study (pdf) a day after President Joe Biden visited communities in New York and New Jersey devastated last week by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Responding to The New York Times' reporting on the solar study, the Green New Deal Network shared a series of photos from recent disasters and asked, "How many more of these pictures do y'all need to see between now and 2050 for y’all to understand that these 30-year timelines are completely unrealistic?"

The Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program director, Jean Su, said in a statement that "an ambitious solar target shows real promise in addressing the climate emergency, but it has to include careful considerations of scale and design."

"By prioritizing rooftop and community solar and storage, Biden's team could boost energy affordability and resilience in extreme weather events like Hurricane Ida," Su said. "Because private utilities are fighting distributed energy, the Biden administration should make utility reform a key part of this important climate and justice transformation."

The youth-led Sunrise Movement, in a series of tweets, noted the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that Democrats are developing and efforts by right-wingers like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to water it down.

"At the end of the day, this [administration] can say whatever. If we're not consistently creating the right policies to get there, it's just words," the group warned. "Words won't save us, transformative investments in renewable energy, public housing, and our schools will."

Experts in the solar sector also emphasized that bold policy would be required to achieve the future envisioned in the study.

"That kind of quick acceleration of deployment is only going to happen through smart policy decisions," Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, told the Times. "That's the part where having a goal is important, but having clear steps on how to get there is the issue."

Produced by the DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the study notes that last year, "about 80 gigawatts (GW) of solar, on an alternating-current (AC) basis, powered around 3% of U.S. electricity demand."

"By 2035, the decarbonization scenarios envision cumulative deployment of 760–1,000 GW, serving 37%–42% of electricity demand," the study says. "By 2050, those scenarios envision cumulative deployment of 1,050–1,570 GW, serving 44%–45% of electricity demand."

As the DOE outlines, other key takeaways include:

  • With continued technological advances, electricity prices do not increase through 2035;
  • Achieving decarbonization requires significant acceleration of clean energy deployment, which will employ as many as 500,000–1.5 million people in solar jobs by 2035;
  • Storage, transmission expansion, and flexibility in load and generation are key to maintaining grid reliability and resilience;
  • Expanding clean electricity supply yields deeper decarbonization;
  • Land availability does not constrain solar deployment;
  • The benefits of decarbonization far outweigh additional costs incurred; and
  • Challenges must be addressed so that solar costs and benefits are distributed equitably.

"The study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, 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," said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a statement.

"Achieving this bright future," she emphasized, "requires a massive and equitable deployment of renewable energy and strong decarbonization policies—exactly what is laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and President Biden's Build Back Better agenda."

The Times reports "Biden wants to use tax credits to encourage the use of solar power systems and batteries at homes, businesses, and utilities. The administration also wants local governments to make it quicker to obtain permits and build solar projects." According to the newspaper, Granholm said part of the Biden administration's strategy would focus on the Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP) that, if implemented, would reward utilities for adding renewable energy to the electric grid.

Climate campaigners are urging congressional Democrats to exclude fossil fuels and other "false solutions" from the CEPP, which is part of the $3.5 trillion package investing in climate and social programs that they aim to pass this month alongside the bipartisan bill. However, they are running into trouble with Manchin, a key swing vote, on the package's price tag—and progressives have made clear that they will block the infrastructure bill unless Congress also advances the broader legislation via the budget reconciliation process.

Biden, who supports both pieces of legislation, highlighted the bills and the importance of taking action on the climate emergency during his Tuesday travels to areas impacted by Ida. "We are determined that we are going to deal with climate change," the president said, by achieving net-zero emission and transitioning the nation's power system by midcentury.

"Folks, the evidence is clear: Climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy. And the threat is here; it’s not going to get any better," he said. "And so, folks, we got to listen to the scientists and the economists and the national security experts. They all tell us this is code red; the nation and the world are in peril. And that's not hyperbole. That is a fact."

"They've been warning us the extreme weather would get more extreme over the decade, and we’re living it in real time now," the president continued, noting that "one in every three Americans has been victimized by severe weather" this summer.

Climate campaigners demonstrated at Biden's Tuesday events demanding an end to fossil fuels and drawing attention to his administration resuming oil and gas lease sales for public lands and waters, in compliance with a federal court order but in conflict with the president's campaign promises.

Chase Huntley, vice president for strategy and results at the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, connected that move to the release of the solar study in comments to The Washington Post.

"An announcement on increasing renewable energy potential, no matter how impressive, must be followed by an announcement that details how this administration plans to manage public lands for climate and not for oil and gas," Huntley said. "Especially as the administration moves to restart onshore and offshore leasing in direct conflict with a climate-focused agenda."

Others, such as Environmental Working Group president and co-founder Ken Cook, applauded the administration for its ambition while taking aim at utilities.

"Thinking big when it comes to reimagining how the country produces and distributes electricity is exactly what is needed, as we are watching in real-time the impacts the climate crisis is having on virtually every corner of the world," Cook said in a statement. "The Biden administration's proposal is an ambitious, forward-looking plan that will fundamentally alter the power supply across the country forever, that will lower the cost of electricity for individuals and businesses while dramatically reducing pollution from fossil fuels."

"It's time for these laggard utilities to either accept the reality that renewable energy is where this country is heading and support the transition, or get out of the way and let states, communities, and the private sector take over," he added. "This plan by the Biden administration, if implemented, may be the shove that utilities like PG&E and Duke need to finally drop their opposition to the clean energy revolution."

This post has been updated with comment from the Environmental Working Group.


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