Solar panels have been increasingly cropping up on rooftops around the US in the past decade. While the sun still only provides 1 percent of the country’s electricity, solar power use has increased tenfold since 2011 and is expected to double in 2016, thanks to falling solar panel prices and extended federal tax credits. If projected growth rates keep up, what kind of benefits could we reap?
North of $400 billion in environmental and health benefits—and tens of thousands of avoided deaths—by 2050, say researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in their new report.
The study is one of a series that the Department of Energy has commissioned as a halfway-point assessment of the SunShot Initiative, an ambitious plan launched by the DOE in 2011 that aims to cut the cost of installed solar down to 6 cents per kilowatt by 2020 to make it cost-competitive with other forms of electricity. The DOE estimates that this could expand solar power to meet 14 percent of US electric power demand by 2030, and 27 percent by 2050.
In this analysis, the researchers looked at three key positive impacts of solar: greenhouse gas emissions reductions, air pollution impacts, and water-use reductions. They used the NREL’s Regional Energy Deployment System model, which provides a detailed visualization of the electricity generation and transmission system in the US.
Achieving the SunShot Initiative’s targets would cut power sector greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent between 2015 and 2050, worth almost $260 billion in avoided global climate damages. Reductions in emissions of toxic sulfur dioxide (9 percent), nitrogen oxides (11 percent), and particulate matter (8 percent) would lead to $167 billion in avoided health and environmental damage and 25,000–59,000 avoided deaths. And power plants could cut the use of 46 trillion gallons of water between 2015 and 2050.
The US is already benefiting from existing solar power installations, the researchers calculated. The 20 gigawatts of total solar power installed at the end of 2014 has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 17 million metric tons and air pollution by 21,500 tons. These have already saved about $1.6 billion in climate, health, and environmental costs.