Solar Could Provide One-Third Of The Western U.S.’s Power Needs By 2050 By Ryan Koronowski

Solar Could Provide One-Third Of The Western U.S.’s Power Needs By 2050

By Ryan Koronowski on August 5, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Solar power could supply one-third of the West’s power needs by 2050 if
federal cost-reduction targets are met and the region adopts reasonable
carbon policies, according to a new study from researchers at the
University of California, Berkeley.

The cost of solar has been declining rapidly, and it has proliferated
in use faster than many thought possible. The U.S. recently became one
of four other countries to reach 10 gigawatts of solar capacity. Still,
it has barely crested one percent of total energy production in the
United States. As the twin trends of lower cost and increased
distribution accelerate, the stark reality remains: transitioning the
electric grid more completely to renewables could be expensive and

The Berkeley study, published in Environmental Science and Technology,
analyzed how widespread solar could reasonably become in western North
America by mid-century. They developed a model that determined the
optimal investment of solar generation, transmission, and storage
across the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC). This is the
grid rich with renewable resources that serves 14 Western states, plus
British Columbia, Alberta, and northern Baja California in Mexico. That
richness in intermittent renewable power, plus the large geographic
size of the grid, makes the WECC an ideal place to examine how
renewable power such as solar would actually scale.

The crucial factor in the study was the impact of solar cost-reduction
targets on the broader energy mix. The Department of Energy’s SunShot
Initiative was announced in 2011 with the goal of reducing total solar
costs by 75 percent by 2020, to be cost-competitive with other large-
scale forms of energy without subsidies. The name is a play on
President Kennedy’s “moon shot” goal he set, to get Americans on the
moon. Since its inception, the program has supported next-generation
photovoltaic cells, such as “multijunction cells” that boost
efficiency, as well as efforts to reduce the “soft costs” of solar
installation like financing hurdles and simplifying installation
technology. If successful, the price of solar would drop to a dollar a
watt, or 6 cents a kilowatt-hour — right on par with conventional
fossil fuel energy without subsidies.

Recent analyses place the current levelized cost of installed solar
between 19 and 24 cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on the location.

The researchers examined several different scenarios, but the most
interesting one was the “Limited Technology SunShot Scenario,” which
analyzed what would happen if: the region agreed to a carbon cap that
would reduce emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, nuclear
and carbon capture and sequestration technologies were not available as
investment options, and the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative
was successful.

In this scenario, the region would rely on large-scale wind deployment
for 34 percent of its power, and solar generation for 30 percent.
Geothermal would provide low-carbon baseload generation, and hydropower
and natural gas generation would be used for the rest of the mix,
allowing for additional grid flexibility. This is what would be
powering North American power outlets by 2050 in this scenario:

Notice the huge amount of solar streaming out of the Southwest,
geothermal in the mountains, wind off the plains (even in tar sands-
soaked Alberta), and the hydro power centers in the Northwest. This
would mean more large-scale installations like the 377 megawatt Ivanpah
concentrated solar plant in the Mojave desert — scheduled to come
online by the end of 2013. The scenario envisions 5 gigawatts of
concentrated solar power with 6 hours of storage installed in
California, which would mean about a dozen more Ivanpahs. Distributed
photovoltaic solar systems could help reduce transmission costs. Small
increases in storage technology would help charge the grid with peak
power generation in the sunny middle of the day for use in the peak-
demand late evening.

Costs increase in all four scenarios, yet relying on the status quo of
predominantly fossil fuel-based electric power would be economically,
socially, and environmentally expensive. According to the Berkeley
researchers, the cost of electricity would be lower with a successful
implementation of new nuclear power and carbon capture and
sequestration (CCS) technology. However, because both nuclear power and
CCS are expensive and risky, the Limited Technology Scenario without
both of these technologies is the most feasible option.

While these targets may seem overlay ambitious to some, states are
already finding success in beating existing renewable energy goals.
Minnesota Power recently announced it will reach its 25 percent
renewable energy quota ten years early.

Finally, the study concludes that dropping the cost of solar to $1 per
watt mitigates the cost of the carbon cap in the WECC. As the study’s
authors put it: “Achieving the SunShot target could make it cost-
e?ective for solar power to provide more than a third of electricity in
the WECC by 2050, aiding the ability of the WECC power system to reduce
emissions while meeting load.” Cutting carbon becomes feasible and
costs nothing if a program like the SunShot Initiative succeeds.


The United States Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative has set
cost-reduction targets of $1/watt for central-station solar
technologies. We use SWITCH, a high-resolution electricity system
planning model, to study the implications of achieving these targets
for technology deployment and electricity costs in western North
America, focusing on scenarios limiting carbon emissions to 80% below
1990 levels by 2050. We find that achieving the SunShot target for
solar photovoltaics would allow this technology to provide more than a
third of electric power in the region, displacing natural gas in the
medium term and reducing the need for nuclear and carbon capture and
sequestration (CCS) technologies, which face technological and cost
uncertainties, by 2050. We demonstrate that a diverse portfolio of
technological options can help integrate high levels of solar
generation successfully and cost-effectively. The deployment of GW-
scale storage plays a central role in facilitating solar deployment and
the availability of flexible loads could increase the solar penetration
level further. In the scenarios investigated, achieving the SunShot
target can substantially mitigate the cost of implementing a carbon
cap, decreasing power costs by up to 14% and saving up to $20 billion
($2010) annually by 2050 relative to scenarios with Reference solar


Fred Heutte | Senior Policy Associate
NW Energy Coalition

About Suzanne

Suzanne Lewis, editor and manager since 2000. Suzanne is a Planetary Peacekeeper, an Agent for Conscious Evolution, a Spiritual Healer, a Mother, a multi - faceted artist (beads, gems to trade beads; guords star seed art; published author and Lover of Life for the sake of All our Relations.
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