Pragmatic projection sees solar power nearly tripling in roaring 2020s

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The US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has released its 2019 Standard Scenario tools and analysis. The report looks at a combination of broad combination of variables to create models of potential outcomes in the US electricity system through 2050.

Across the full set of scenarios, the models show wind and solar providing between 21-62% of total installed capacity and 17%–72% of total generation. While coal and nuclear show decline in all scenarios, gas shows the widest range of outcomes with it most being affected by the price of itself and energy storage.

The mid-case scenario got a decent amount of attention as it was considered possibly pragmatic. In the scenario total generation grows, provided primarily by a mix of new natural gas combined cycle, PV, and wind generation.

In the late 2040s, wind and PV generation increase more rapidly  as more rapid retirements that occur then. Respectively, wind and solar, fossils, and nuclear are generation 28%, 57%, and 15% of electricity in 2030 and 60%, 33%, and 7% in 2050. The total 2030 projection shown in the below image sees a cumulative capacity 48GWac of rooftop, and 122GWac of utility scale solar power.

Wind and solar at 28% of overall generation in 2030, would be more than 2.5 times the just greater than 10% of US electricity generation that occured in the first half of 2019. And if we use a DC:AC capacity factor of 1.3:1, then the projected 221GWdc of total solar power will about triple our currently installed capacity of ~75GWdc.

Energy storage starts to have a much greater effect as time goes on, with this beginning to accelerate, as the “overnight capital cost of 4-hour battery storage is assumed to decline below that of NG-CTs from approximately 2030 onward in most scenarios”. The report suggests that at this point energy storage becomes the most common type of peaking plant. The mid case scenario suggests 165 GW / 656 GWh of energy storage is deployed, however, a lower energy storage cost model sees that volume more than doubling.

One model that looks at higher gas prices than average and lower renewable costs than projected sees that by 2030 there is 410GWac of solar power installed – which would mean we’d be installing seven times as much solar in the next ten years as we have to date in the United States. By the year 2050, in this model, this suggests 888GWac / 1.2TWdc of solar power is installed meeting 28% of all electricity needs.

One interesting finding was that as the price of renewables heads down, it makes more sense to build local generation capacity and energy versus powerlines to move cheaper electricity from higher production regions. This suggests that many areas, not just the southwest and Texas, are ripe for project development.

The various scenario outputs can be seen in more detail using the Standard Scenario Results Viewer.  If you’d like to to hear about project insights, challenges, and applications of the tool, then join NREL for a webinar on Jan. 9, 2020, at 11 a.m. Mountain Time.