By mid-century, nearly half of the nation’s electricity will come from solar energy, or so says a blueprint announced last week by the Biden administration, a strategy aimed at reducing one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
But is it doable and is it affordable? Those same questions were raised when the Murphy administration called for solar panels to produce a similarly aggressive target of 34% of the state’s electricity by 2050 in its revised Energy Master Plan. A study by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests solar energy has the potential to power 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035 and 45% by 2050.
Clean-energy advocates argue the answer to those questions is definitely in the affirmative with one huge caveat — it depends on the federal government providing the funds to undertake an expensive and long-delayed modernization of the electric grid.
‘Ramping up solar this dramatically is possible’
“Ramping up solar this dramatically is possible, but it will call for supportive policies and robust investment in solar generation, the transmission grid and relevant technologies,’’ says Brian Murray, interim director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and director of the Duke University Energy Initiative.
Whether the administration can push enough spending in a $3.5 trillion budget package pending in Congress to include upgrading and making the power grid smarter remains to be seen.
“The time is now. It is kind of a make-it-or-break-it moment,’’ said Lyle Rawlings, founder of Advanced Solar Products in Flemington, who has been working with lobbyists in Washington on the budget bill. “The infrastructure side of this is necessary for the program to be successful.’’
More jobs without higher electricity costs?
The Department of Energy study found a transition to more reliance on solar energy can help decarbonize the power grid and create more than 1 million new jobs, without raising electricity prices for consumers.
“This 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 Granholm in a press release.
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso, whose agency oversees most of the state’s clean-energy agenda, welcomed Biden’s efforts to push solar and reduce emissions contributing to climate change.
“We need national leadership to get every state in line,’’ he said. “If we are going to preserve this piece of real estate we have here, we have to spend money.’’
According to the DOE study, however, reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality result in savings of $1.1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, far outweighing the additional costs incurred by transitioning to clean energy.
“This is exactly what New Jersey needs — a national commitment to expand renewable energy on the power grid,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “President Biden needs to swing for the fences because there will be more Hurricane Idas.’’
But Raymond Cantor, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, described the DOE study, much like the state’s Energy Master Plan, as more aspirational than concrete action plans. “Both documents still need a lot of technological advances before solar and wind become economically feasible,’’ he said.
Solar won’t be cheap
The power grid has to change demonstrably but people will have to brace themselves for the cost, acknowledged Fred DeSanti, of the New Jersey Solar Energy Coalition, to accommodate the solar into a reliable power system. “We can’t fool ourselves and think it is going to be an inexpensive transition.’’
Among other things, Rawlings said other investments need to be made to reflect the problems caused by the intermittency of solar and wind when the sun does not shine or the wind doesn’t blow enough to propel wind turbines.