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We’re Inching Closer to Making Solar Power as Cheap as Regular Electricity

Driving down the cost of solar energy could create $400 billion in environmental and public-health gains.

By Madeleine Thomas


Photovoltaic modules atop the roof of the the Department of Energy. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s been nearly five years since the Department of Energy rolled out plans to make solar power a cost-competitive electricity source by the end of the decade. Also known as the SunShot Initiative, the goal of the programis to drop the cost of solar power 75 percent by 2020. Once prices reach $0.06 per kilowatt-hour, solar power will officially become cost-competitive and could supply as much as 27 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050 as more homeowners, businesses, and communities switch over. And, according to a new study published by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at University of California and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar power could also generate more than $400 billion in environmental and public-health gains by that year as well.

The switch to solar could bode well economically too.Solar energy currently supports about 174,000 jobs across the country, according to The Solar Foundation. But the SunShot Initiative could create 290,000 new jobs by 2030, and 390,000 new jobs by 2050, if all goes to plan. Further impetus to reach that target: the environmental and public-health benefits widespread solar power could offer. Those benefits include:

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions:Reaching the SunShot Initiative could save some eight billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere — more than 10 percent of emissions released from the power sector overall — between 2015 and 2050, the study notes. Solar power could also prevent anywhere from $60 to $347 billion in future climate change damages, the study predicts, if used to meet future requirements to reduce carbon emissions like those outlined in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
  • Air Pollution:SunShot’s target would reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and fine particulate matter emissions from entering the atmosphere, lowering health and environmental damages by up to $167 billion, the study estimates. In North America, particulate air pollution is the 14th leading modifiable risk factor of death. SunShot’s target could prevent as many as 25,000 to 59,000 premature deaths from chronic exposure to sulfur dioxide pollution between 2015 and 2050, and could prevent more than 30,000 hospital trips for respiratory and cardiovascular issues, and 2.5 million missed workdays.
  • Saving Water:Thermoelectric power — which uses steam to generate turbines and create electricity — is one of the biggest water guzzlers in the world. In the United States, the energy sector is responsible for as much as 38 percent of all fresh water withdrawals around the country. SunShot’s solar vision could save some 46 trillion gallons of water from being withdrawn between 2015 and 2050. “Water consumption savings in 2050 alone could supply the annual water demands of more than 1.3 million U.S. households,” the study states.

Solar power installations have grown 17-fold since 2008, from 1.2 gigawatts to 20 gigawatts nationwide, according to government figures. That’s enough electricity to power all of Austin and Seattle for an entire year. The costs of photovoltaic panels have also dropped more than 60 percent since 2010. But even though solar power is cost-competitive in a few states, including California, Hawaii, Texas, and Minnesota, the SunShot Initiative is still about 70 percent into its target overall.