DOE’s SunShot Successes Underscore the Bright Benefits of Federal Clean Energy Investments

What do GPS, the Internet and now solar, have in common? All are successful cutting-edge technologies that benefited from critical government support over the years. For example, in just five years driven by ambitious goals to lower the cost of solar by 75 percent, the U.S. Department of Energy’s solar SunShot Initiative has already spurred price declines of 52.5 percent, in absolute terms, or 70 percent of the way towards achieving the cost reduction goal.

SunShot, which began in 2011, started off with ambitious and world-changing goals. Part of its plan is to help lower the cost of solar targeting $1 per watt—a drop in costs, a nosedive really, of 75 percent—making it widely affordable and available. Such a decrease, the DOE has estimated, can enable the country to get 14 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050. That, in turn, would put the U.S. well on its way to the low carbon economy we all need to avoid climate change’s worst effects.

Last week, the DOE celebrated the halfway point on that path and that 70 percent progress by issuing eight reports—detailing the opportunities and challenges involved in getting the rest of the way to the SunShot goal. This begs the question: Why, on the cusp of such tremendous progress, is the House of Representatives set to cut funding for solar and other clean energy research, development and deployment by more than $900 million as part of the 2017 federal appropriations process?

The record shows clearly that federal clean energy spending has consistently proven its worth by directing RD&D funds that drive job creation, economic growth and reduce health and environmental costs. Let’s look at the accomplishments the Sunshot Initiative for example:

  • Significant R&D: Through SunShot, DOE-funded national laboratories have contributed to more than half of all solar efficiency world records—in other words, they have helped create solar panels that produce more electricity from the same amount of sun—thereby helping maintain and strengthen the U.S. position as a global solar technology leader.
  • Incubating early-stage technologies: For every $1 in federal investment, SunShot-supported companies have attracted more than $22 in private capital.
  • Increased domestic manufacturing: Reversing the trend of solar manufacturing moving offshore, SunShot support has helped establish factories in Georgia, Michigan, and upstate New York.
  • New technologies for grid integration: SunShot has helped develop new interconnection rules and better solar forecasting that can help grid operators more easily incorporate solar.
  • Lowering “soft costs”: By helping standardize permitting and interconnection rules, and by promoting group purchasing programs, SunShot is helping cut the non-hardware costs that make solar significantly pricier in the U.S. than in countries like Germany and Australia.

Five years into the program, we’re already a heady 70 percent of the way towards the SunShot 10-year goals. Not only that, but jobs in the industry have grown exponentially—by 123 percent since 2010—to 208,000 jobs. As well, the country now has 10 times as much solar installed as it did in 2011, enough to power the equivalent of 5.4 million homes. In the next two years, that number is expected to double, and, by 2020, potentially double again, if we keep the right public and utility policies in place.

And these state, federal and utility policies are critical. With many state renewable policies under examination, it’s critically important that we continue to develop smart policies and utility rate structures that promote and enable this market and job growth opportunity while ensuring that all customers have access to the benefits that rooftop solar can provide. For example, NRDC and SolarCity recently published a new analysis on costs and benefits of rooftop solar energy in Nevada that shows it’s benefitting all utility customers in the state and benefits could significantly increase under good solar policies.

Further, the country, much of it parched by a perilous drought, is saving almost unfathomable amounts of water thanks to solar; the fossil-fuel power generation that it replaces sucks up huge amounts of H2O. Our public health is on the rise, too, because solar produces electricity without the kinds of pollution that spew out of conventional power plant smoke stacks, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. They’re linked to asthma, heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Just these pollution reductions alone so far have resulted in public health savings estimated at $890 million annually. And, most importantly, the solar fleet in 2014 cut 17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. (The amount of solar installed by the end of 2015 increased by a full one-third, meaning emissions dropped, too.)

So let’s celebrate SunShot for the critical role it plays in supporting Americans’ clean energy aspirations and for helping to maintain our country’s position as a leader in a global solar market currently valued at almost $114 billion. Let’s embrace the role the federal government can play in investing in clean energy research and development and support federal funding through Congressional appropriations that builds a path toward a clean energy future. 

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