Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Last week, the Biden Administration published a Department of Energy report that offered a course for building up solar power in the U.S. more than tenfold, helping to meet our clean energy needs. While the report is not yet a plan, it provides a roadmap to decarbonizing the economy by 2050, and will help inform policymakers on how to get there.
The report lays out a path in which solar power is developed to generating around 45% of forecasted electricity needs in 2050. It’s a big jump from the roughly 4% it generates today, but new technologies are continuing developing new solar far less costly. And this transition would take place along scaling up of wind, geothermal, and other power sources that would help make up the gap.
Solar power is a useful technology in part because unlike, say, wind or hydro, there are no parts of the United States without sunlight. Certainly, some areas, especially in the Southwest, experience more sunlight than others, but solar is an effective source in places like Minnesota as well. Germany currently generates about 8% of its electricity from solar panels, despite having weather patterns that make it somewhat inhospitable, and frequently has a surplus of power that it sells to other European countries.
While it’s true that solar panels require space – perhaps 10 million acres to achieve the 45% figure – it favorably compares to coal in both cost and land use. Global Energy Monitor estimates that solar energy requires about 16% less land than coal. Furthermore, solar panels can be placed on rooftops, farms, and pollinator gardens, whereas coal mines irreparably damage the landscape, obliterating entire mountains.
As previously noted, Minnesota doesn’t receive as much sunlight as the states to our south, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play a big role in this transition. Currently, around 2% of our electricity is generated from solar panels, but state and utility investments are on the rise, notably in community solar gardens. And it’s worth noting that solar panels tend to work well on the cloudless days of frigid polar vortex events, when sources like natural gas are strained.
For Minnesota to take advantage of the falling costs and air quality benefits of solar – not to mention meeting our climate needs – we’ll need to invest in projects that push it forward. The Legislature passed a laudable funding package last session that will help schools and colleges install solar panels on their buildings. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, has opportunities for customers to support solar garden power and incentives for home installations. More programs like these, supported by state dollars, can help move the transition along.
And as we invest in solar, we have the opportunity to remake our energy system to be more equitable, to help support communities that have been harmed by fossil fuels. Organizations like Community Power are focused on that work, helping to develop inclusive financing that give Minnesotans a chance to produce their own power without relying on personal wealth or credit score. In St. Paul, the city and the Port Authority are working to develop a 100-acre former golf course in one of the state’s most diverse neighborhoods into a carbon-free community using solar. These efforts will need more support from the state to move forward.
The Department of Energy report shows that what we need is possible – we can get to a carbon-neutral economy, powered largely by the sun, in the timescale we need. Now we need to make sure that policymakers know that it’s the right course for our state, country, and climate.
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