A $420B Plan to Power the U.S. With Solar

The editors of Scientific American, in the January issue, lay out an ambitious solar scheme that any cleantech fan would love. According to the magazine’s solar manifesto, for a cost of $420 billion, we could cover 46,000 square miles of land in the U.S. Southwest with solar photovoltaic and solar thermal plants that could provide almost 3,000 gigawatts (GW) of solar-generated power. That’s enough to supply 69 percent of the nation’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.

Though the plan is wildly ambitious and overlooks, we think, the importance of solar thermal (attributing only 1/5 of the solar power generation to it), it does provide important details. Whereas a lot of solar advocates make vague calls for more investment in and more government support of solar, this article gives hard data on the cost, time frame and technology involved — and a step-by-step plan for how to get there.

The $420 billion price tag is admittedly a little hard to swallow — at first. But as they note:

Although $420 billion is substantial, the annual expense would be less than the current U.S. Farm Price Support program. It is also less than the tax subsidies that have been levied to build the country’s high-speed telecommunications infrastructure over the past 35 years.

So how would this massive, solar power pie-in-the-sky plan be implemented? With a lot of government aid. The piece advocates that the feds not only guarantee 30-year loans to build the solar farms, but that they agree to purchase power and provide price-support subsidies. As for funding the plan, a carbon tax of 0.5 cent per kWh is suggested.

The two key technology hurdles of the plan would be how to store the energy for use when the sun isn’t shining, and how to get the power from the Southwest to the rest of the nation. To solve the first problem, the editors offer “compressed-air energy storage” as a solution. This technology uses the electricity from the solar plants to compress air and pump it into empty spaces such as underground caverns, abandoned mines or aquifers; the pressurized air can then be released, as needed, to power a turbine to produce electricity. As for the question of distribution, the editors say the system would need a high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) power transmission backbone.

The editors sum up their manifesto with:

The greatest obstacle to implementing a renewable U.S. energy system is not technology or money, however. It is the lack of public awareness that solar power is a practical alternative . . .