Solar Futures Study Draws Insights From Across NREL’s Expertise and Tools To Deliver Detailed Analysis of Solar Energy’s Future in United States
The next 30 years of solar energy is likely to look very different than the past 30. Photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar power are likely to continue to grow rapidly — the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) projects solar energy could provide 45% of the electricity in the United States by 2050 if the energy system is fully decarbonized — and technology costs are projected to continue to decline.
But in the coming decades, the evolution of solar energy technologies could be defined more by how they interact with other energy technologies, like wind and storage. Changes across the wider energy system, like the increased electrification of buildings and vehicles, emergence of clean fuels, and new commitments to both equitability and a more circular, sustainable economy, will shape the future of solar energy. These are just some of the key findings of the Solar Futures Study, published by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and written by NREL. The study is based on extensive analysis and modeling conducted by NREL and synthesizes analysis across many domains to provide a balanced and rigorous assessment of the future of solar power.
“The study brought together expert perspectives across industry, government, nongovernmental organizations, and universities to frame its research direction,” said NREL’s lead of the study, Robert Margolis. “Then we used several of NREL’s detailed power system modeling tools to examine how the role of solar could evolve under a set of decarbonization scenarios.”
Three Visions of the Solar Future
The study uses three scenarios: a baseline case using current policies and trends; a decarbonization scenario in which the current electric power system is 95% decarbonized by 2035 and 100% by 2050; and a decarbonization-plus-electrification scenario in which the electric grid grows significantly in scale to power the electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry. With these scenarios to set the scope, NREL researchers collaborated across sectors to determine how each scenario would play out. Their results describe a future rich with opportunities for solar integration: co-optimization with electric vehicles, solar system recycling and reuse, more equitable and widespread community adoption of solar energy, and much more.
Here we dive into the study’s cross-disciplinary approach and detail some of its specific findings by technology area and sector. For a broader overview of the study’s high-level findings, check out this NREL-authored fact sheet.
“Solar can play a synergistic role across various sectors including industry, transportation, and agriculture. To better understand the future of solar across the energy system, we brought together numerous experts from across the lab,” said NREL co-principal investigator Kristen Ardani. “We aimed to foster new collaborations and, in doing so, studied solar energy development and integration more comprehensively than ever before.”
At over 300 pages, the Solar Futures Study is definitely comprehensive but still not the full story. Seven NREL technical reports support the main study, each packed with highly detailed results from respective domains. For the curious reader, these supplemental reports dive deeper into the future of other energy technologies and sectors and their relationship to solar energy.
The Deep Dive: Solar Evolution Across Sectors
Like the overall study, a panel of industry experts shaped the scope of each detailed technical …….