Biden Administration outlines how solar could be nearly half of electricity supply by 2050

Key Points
  • The White House is calling for solar energy to power nearly half of the electric grid by 2050.
  • Solar currently powers 3% of the grid, but by 2050 that number can hit 45%, the Department of Energy said Wednesday.
  • A move to more solar power is part of the Biden administration's larger goal to decarbonize the energy industry.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, New Hampshire, U.S., June 4, 2019.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

The White House on Wednesday outlined a plan for solar energy to supply nearly half of the nation's electricity by 2050. The ambitious outline would see solar rising from 3% of generation in 2020 to 40% by 2035 before ultimately hitting 45% by 2050.

Heavy spending across industries will be required to meet that blueprint. U.S. solar installations hit a record high in 2020, but yearly solar capacity additions will need to double annually through 2025, before quadrupling from 2020's level each year between 2025 and 2030. Falling costs and supportive policies including tax incentives have boosted solar's robust growth over the last decade.

The report, issued by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said solar capacity will need to reach 1,600 gigawatts by 2050. This is more than the total electrical consumption from residential and commercial buildings today.

The solar power study is based on the Biden administration's larger plan to have an emissions-free grid by 2035, with the broader energy system decarbonizing by 2050. Other zero-carbon energy sources, most notably wind, would account for the generation not supplied by solar.

"The 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," Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.

The report comes as extreme weather events fueled by climate change wreak havoc on the U.S. grid.

"This is code red," President Joe Biden said Tuesday while visiting areas of New York and New Jersey hit by Hurricane Ida. "Climate change poses an existential threat to our lives, to our economy. And the threat is here; it's not going to get any better," he said. "The nation and the world are in peril."

The president's language echoes that of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres when he described the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a "code red for humanity."

For the U.S. to reach its goals, significant developments will need to be made around grid flexibility, including energy storage, as well as transmission expansion.

The infrastructure package passed by the Senate in August includes billions of dollars for clean energy projects, but several important policies were left out, including extending tax credits. However, this and other initiatives could still be included in the $3.5 trillion budget resolution approved by the House in August.