Study Says DOE Goals Would Make Utility-Scale Solar Mainstream


The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) SunShot Initiative funds research and sets goals with the overall objective of making solar power cost-competitive with other forms of power generation by 2020. SunShot's magic number for utility-scale solar is $1 per watt, which the DOE says represents about $0.06 per kWh.

A recent study conducted by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley, finds attaining this goal would enable utility-scale solar to meet about a third of the electricity requirements of the western region of North America by 2050. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, says SunShot's target, if hit, would enable central-station solar to supersede natural gas generation and reduce the need for nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

The team conducting the study used the REAL's Switch electricity system planning model to evaluate scenarios for limiting carbon emissions. The computer model identifies cost-effective investment decisions for meeting future electricity demand. It takes into account the existing grid infrastructure, expected technology advances, renewable energy performance forecasts, anticipated fuel costs and the effects of public policies.

According to the REAL, an important aspect of the Switch model is making infrastructure investment choices for various available power generation system technologies. Decision variables for capacity infrastructure investment include the following:

  • The amount of new generation capacity to install of each generator type in each load area;
  • The amount of transmission capacity to add between each pair of load areas; and
  • Whether to operate each existing power plant in each period.

The study authors say that a diverse portfolio of technological options and a balance-of-systems approach would help integrate solar generation into the grid successfully and cost-effectively. In particular, the report says the deployment of GW-scale storage would play a central role in utility-scale solar development with its ability to handle flexible load requirements.

In the scenarios investigated, achieving the SunShot target was shown to decrease power costs by up to 14%, saving up to $20 billion (in 2010 dollars) annually by 2050, the study says.

Of course, the study's focus was on the implications of reaching the DOE's cost targets and does not have any special insight into how such goals are to be achieved – only that getting there would seem to be a good idea.

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