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  • Charlie Bevis

Examining the Feasibility of Biden's Solar Targets

As we continue to feel the effects of the climate crisis and COP26 nears, energy policy has been prominent in news. Yet, many were still shocked by the Biden administration’s ambitious target of having 45% of the United States’ electricity be solar generated by 2050. This article will unpack Biden’s plan and evaluate the feasibility of such a proposal.

The report from the Department of Energy, the Solar Futures Study, specifies a sooner target that by 2035 solar will make up 40% of US energy production and provides that the US power sector will meet net-zero in the same year.

The first question is why the Biden administration has chosen to focus so predominantly on solar power. Whilst the remaining 55% of US energy production in 2050 would come from wind nuclear and other sources, the administration is clearly placing a lot of chips on one source of power.

The most likely answer lies in the geography of the United States. Much of the US receives sufficiently sunny weather to make solar generation possible. In fact, one study found that the nation’s low-to-moderate income households alone have the potential to generate 1000 tera-Watt hours by investing in rooftop solar panels. In contrast, wind farms must be concentrated in specific locations, which creates the need for additional infrastructure to connect producers and consumers.

Another benefit is that the cost of solar power has been steadily falling. In 2020, the IEA declared that solar power is officially the “cheapest electricity in history”. This not only makes solar a more attractive option for utility companies but makes it one of the few means of renewable energy generation that ordinary people can implement on their own properties.

Finally, solar panels take up a lot of space and it has been calculated that the 2035 target of decarbonising the power sector would require enough solar panels to cover the entirety of the Netherlands. Yet, Biden’s plan estimates that even the 2050 target would only require 0.5% of the contiguous United States. Few other countries have enough open land to dedicate to such endeavours.

The potential for US solar power is evident in the growing use of solar generated power over the past decade. Already, 3% of US electricity is generated in this way and there is no sign of this growth slowing down.

Yet, even if the logic and progress of US solar power is undeniable, we must question the feasibility of Biden’s ambitious target.

One hurdle is that the upsurge in solar power will require a correlative expansion in supportive infrastructure, primarily battery storage to offset the natural volatility in weather patterns. A study conducted by Wadia, Albertus and Srinivasan found that this would require a “dramatic expansion of annual production” of lithium with ecologically-damaging “heavy capital investment in mining”. There are also technological limitations as batteries have so far struggled to surpass a four-hour duration window.

Although there is reason to be hopeful. There is evidence of greater investment being funnelled towards longer-duration batteries, especially in California, and Norton Rose Fulbright argues that the cost of battery technology is falling amidst federal bodies creating a “more favourable regulatory environment”. One imagines that the battery industry will build on this positive momentum to grow exponentially over the next few decades.

As well as physical infrastructure, the transition to 45% solar generation will depend upon a retrained workforce to design and implement solar generation schemes. However, based on the data it seems that this shift is already underway. The 2020 Clean Jobs America Report confirmed that the solar industry had created nearly 130 000 jobs since 2010 and that nearly three times more people are employed in clean energy than the fossil fuel industry. A bigger concern is whether these jobs offer sustainable incomes. It has been highlighted that renewable energy employment is heavily weighted towards construction rather than management with one of Texas’ largest solar farms offering only twelve permanent roles. This will dismay many who foresaw solar energy injecting long-term stimulus into stagnated rural towns.

A further problem, pertinent to the US, are the political barriers that restrict the ability of the President to design long-term policy. At the federal level, Congress is struggling to pass a $3.5 trillion dollar budget resolution framework with clean energy initiatives being a clear point of contention. There is also the fact that state and local governments would need to co-operate in reaching the solar target.

The administration is urging local authorities to change building codes to make it easier to install solar panels. Meanwhile, another study found that varied state-levels policies were causing the unequal implementation of solar generation. This is apparent when one considers the diverse approaches to solar in California and Florida. The former has mandated that new buildings have solar panels and batteries whilst Florida regulations continue to deter third party solar developers, who are often able to make solar panels affordable for ordinary citizens.

Then of course there is the always the potential for the next President to undermine Biden’s policies. Should the winner of the 2024 race follow Trump’s protectionist stance and restrict solar panel imports from China, the hard work of this administration could be unravelled. Such a move would make the 2035 and 2050 targets hard to reach when every year counts in the climate fight.

Finally, the Biden administration must resolve an ongoing debate as to the balance of solar power generation between utility-run concentrated farms and decentralised schemes. Whilst the President favours the former, local community-run schemes would require less transmission lines and have shown more resilience. During the 2020 California heatwave, grid blackouts meant that 10% of the state’s electricity came from “mini power plants” – in other words, the solar panels and batteries of private homes and businesses. The danger is that should the government prioritise these schemes, powerful utility companies may become less co-operative in meeting the 2050 target. In truth, both forms of production will be necessary but the balance of approaches will be a tightrope for the administration.

In brief, the Biden administration should be commended for their ambitious solar targets and it is hoped that other countries take notes of the broad shifts in energy policy that will be necessary to tackle the climate crisis. However, this does not mean that the journey will be easy and technological, economic and political hurdles will need to be overcome first before we see the fruits of these progressive aspirations.

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