The Future of US Solar Energy, Batteries and What to Be Concerned About

updated 28 May 2024

How much will solar energy grow as a percentage of the total energy created in US? What role will battery manufacturing play in this?

Solar energy is expected to play an increasingly significant role in the global energy mix. By 2035, solar power is projected to account for 37% to 42% of U.S. electricity demand under aggressive decarbonization scenarios, with the goal of achieving 95% grid decarbonization by 2035 and 100% by 2050. In the most ambitious scenarios, solar capacity could increase from about 76 GW in 2020 to between 1,050 GW and 1,570 GW by 2050, potentially satisfying up to 45% of electricity demand【6†source】【8†source】.

Battery manufacturing is crucial for this growth. Efficient and scalable energy storage solutions are needed to manage the intermittent nature of solar power and ensure a reliable supply. In 2024, solar and battery storage are expected to make up 81% of new U.S. electric-generating capacity. Advances in battery technology will enhance the ability to store excess solar energy generated during peak production times for use during periods of low production, such as at night or during cloudy weather. This will help stabilize the grid and integrate higher proportions of renewable energy.

In summary, the future growth of solar energy will be significantly supported by advancements in battery manufacturing, enabling the efficient storage and distribution of solar power and facilitating a more resilient and sustainable energy grid.

Are there any concerns about the land mass needed to for solar energy to get to 37% of the grid?

Reaching the goal of solar energy supplying 37% of the U.S. electricity grid by 2035 involves significant considerations regarding land use. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Futures Study, achieving this level of solar deployment would require a cumulative solar capacity of 760 to 1,000 gigawatts by 2035. This translates to a substantial land area dedicated to solar installations.

Estimates suggest that around 10 million acres (approximately 15,625 square miles) would be needed for solar farms to meet this target. To put this into perspective, this is about 0.5% of the total land area of the contiguous United States. While this may seem extensive, it's comparable to the land currently used for energy production, including coal mining and drilling for oil and gas.

There are environmental and societal concerns tied to such large-scale land use. These include potential impacts on local ecosystems, land availability for agriculture, and community acceptance of large solar farms. Addressing these concerns will require careful planning, including the utilization of brownfields, rooftops, and other previously disturbed lands to minimize the impact on natural habitats and agricultural areas.

Furthermore, the deployment of battery storage systems is crucial for managing the intermittent nature of solar power, ensuring grid stability, and maximizing the efficiency of solar energy use. By enhancing grid flexibility and resilience, battery storage can help mitigate some of the land use challenges by making solar energy more reliable and effective.

In summary, while the land requirements for expanding solar energy are considerable, strategic planning and technological advancements in energy storage and grid management can help address these challenges and support the transition to a more sustainable energy system.

What percentage of the grids energy comes from solar currently?

As of 2024, solar energy accounts for approximately 5% of the total electricity generated in the United States. This is part of a larger trend where renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, have been steadily increasing their share of the energy mix. Currently, renewables, including hydropower, wind, and solar, make up about 25% of the total electricity generation.

This growth in renewable energy is supported by significant investments and policy initiatives, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides incentives for clean energy projects. These measures are expected to continue driving the expansion of solar and other renewables in the coming years.

Does the US have the manufacturing capacity to create all these panels and batteries? Would importing from China make sense?

The U.S. is making significant strides in expanding its solar panel and battery manufacturing capacity, but challenges remain. As of now, the U.S. relies heavily on imports for its solar panels and batteries. In 2023, the U.S. installed a record 32.4 GW of solar capacity, with solar accounting for over 53% of new electricity-generating capacity additions. Most of the PV modules and components continue to be imported, with a significant portion coming from China.

Domestic manufacturing capacity is growing rapidly due to investments driven by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Over 155 GW of solar manufacturing capacity has been announced, including 85 GW of module capacity and significant expansions in solar cells, wafers, and inverters. Battery manufacturing is also expected to grow almost eightfold by the end of the decade.

While these expansions are promising, the U.S. currently lacks the capacity to meet all its solar and battery needs domestically. Importing from China and other countries remains essential in the short term to meet demand and ensure project timelines are met. The reliance on imports is further highlighted by the significant drop in global prices, which makes imported panels economically attractive despite tariffs and trade regulations.

Therefore, while the U.S. is on a path to significantly increase its manufacturing capabilities, imports, particularly from China, will still play a crucial role in meeting the growing demand for solar panels and batteries in the near future.

What sorts of environmental concerns arise in the mining of lithium and cobalt for batteries? Will those ever be mined domestically?

The mining of lithium and cobalt, essential components for battery production, presents several environmental concerns:

  1. Water Usage and Contamination: Lithium extraction, especially from brine in regions like South America's "Lithium Triangle" (Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia), requires large amounts of water, leading to water depletion and potential contamination of local water supplies. In Chile's Salar de Atacama, lithium mining consumes approximately 65% of the region's water, affecting local agriculture and indigenous communities .

  2. Land Degradation: Both lithium and cobalt mining can cause significant land disruption. Open-pit mining, common in cobalt extraction in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), leads to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and soil erosion .

  3. Toxic Waste: The mining process generates toxic waste materials that can contaminate soil and water sources. The extraction of lithium from hard rock involves chemicals that can lead to harmful byproducts if not properly managed .

  4. Human Health Risks: In cobalt mining, especially in the DRC, artisanal mining practices expose workers to hazardous conditions without proper safety measures, leading to respiratory issues, skin diseases, and other health problems .

Regarding domestic mining, the U.S. is exploring options to increase its lithium and cobalt production to reduce dependency on imports. For lithium, new projects are being developed, such as the Thacker Pass project in Nevada, which is poised to become a significant domestic source. However, these projects face regulatory and environmental challenges, including opposition from local communities and environmentalists concerned about ecological impacts .

Similarly, the U.S. is investigating domestic cobalt resources, with efforts to reopen and develop mines in states like Idaho and Minnesota. While these efforts are promising, they must navigate stringent environmental regulations and potential opposition due to the environmental impact of mining operations .

In summary, while domestic mining of lithium and cobalt could potentially reduce environmental impacts associated with long-distance transport and less regulated foreign mining practices, it also brings its own set of environmental challenges that need to be carefully managed to ensure sustainable and responsible extraction.

How does the mining of cobalt and lithium environment and humanitarian concerns compare to the environmental and humanitarian concerns of the domestic production of oil and gas.

Environmental Concerns

Lithium and Cobalt Mining:

  1. Water Usage and Pollution:

  2. Land Degradation:

  3. Toxic Waste:

Oil and Gas Production:

  1. Water Pollution:

  2. Air Pollution:

  3. Land Degradation:

Humanitarian Concerns

Lithium and Cobalt Mining:

  1. Labor Conditions:

  2. Community Displacement:

Oil and Gas Production:

  1. Health Risks:

  2. Economic Dependency:

  3. Indigenous Rights:

Comparative Analysis

While both industries have significant environmental and humanitarian impacts, the scale and type of impacts differ:

In conclusion, both lithium and cobalt mining and oil and gas production have profound environmental and humanitarian impacts. The shift to renewable energy sources like lithium and cobalt-based batteries must be managed responsibly to mitigate these impacts, just as the impacts of fossil fuel extraction need to be continuously addressed.

What is a low end estimation of the amount of solar that will be installed in the US over the next 10 years?

Over the next 10 years, the U.S. is projected to install significant solar capacity, but the exact amount varies based on different scenarios. On the low end, considering potential supply chain constraints, financing challenges, and regulatory hurdles, projections suggest about 550 GW of total solar capacity could be installed by 2034, an increase of around 120 GW from current levels.

This lower estimate accounts for a 24% decrease from a more optimistic scenario due to possible issues like trade actions and limited supply of solar equipment. Even under these more conservative conditions, solar energy deployment is still expected to quadruple from current levels, driven by increasing domestic manufacturing and the continued impact of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

What is a low end estimation of the amount of solar that will be installed globally over the next 10 years?

A low-end estimation for global solar installations over the next 10 years projects significant growth, albeit at a more conservative pace than some of the more optimistic forecasts. According to BloombergNEF, new global solar PV installations could reach 574 GW in 2024, increasing annually to about 880 GW by 2030. This implies a cumulative addition of around 6.7 terawatts (TW) by 2030 if current trends continue.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also indicates substantial growth, with an expectation of almost 3,700 GW of new renewable capacity, primarily from solar PV and wind, added between 2023 and 2028【58†source】【61†source】.

These projections underscore a robust increase in global solar capacity, driven by policy support, declining costs, and technological advancements.