There’s fresh evidence that the SunShot Initiative, despite being virtually ignored by a mainstream media more interested in faux scandals like Solyndra, might be the most important thing the Obama administration is doing to hasten the U.S. transition away from fossil fuels.

According to new research, if the program hits its goal of bringing the price of solar power down to the level of conventional power by the end of this decade -- that would be a 75 percent drop from 2010 to 2020 -- solar could provide more than a third of the North American West’s electricity by 2050. All this could be accomplished while hitting aggressive greenhouse-gas emissions goals and trimming annual electricity costs by $20 billion compared to the scenario now considered likely.

A scenario for the 2050 western grid (Source: Daniel Kammen and Ana Mileva, RAEL Lab, UC Berkeley)

“Given strategic long-term planning and research and policy support, the increase in electricity costs can be contained as we reduce emissions,” study leader Daniel Kammen, distinguished professor of energy in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, said in a statement. “Saving the planet may be possible at only a modest cost.”

SunShot is pumping resources into a wide range of research efforts aimed at chiseling away at the cost of solar, from boosting panel efficiency to driving down “soft costs” to nurturing startups that are pursuing technological breakthroughs.

The key tool in the Kammen scenario is a high-resolution electricity system planning model called Switch, which was used to test scenarios for hitting the goal of limiting carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. From the study’s abstract:

We find that achieving the SunShot target for solar photovoltaics would allow this technology to provide more than a third of electric power in the region, displacing natural gas in the medium term and reducing the need for nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies, which face technological and cost uncertainties, by 2050. We demonstrate that a diverse portfolio of technological options can help integrate high levels of solar generation successfully and cost-effectively. The deployment of gigawatt-scale storage plays a central role in facilitating solar deployment and the availability of flexible loads could increase the solar penetration level further. In the scenarios investigated, achieving the SunShot target can substantially mitigate the cost of implementing a carbon cap, decreasing power costs by up to 14 percent and saving up to $20 billion (in 2010 dollars) annually by 2050 relative to scenarios with Reference solar costs.

It's important to note the presence of “gigawatt-scale storage” in that plan, which is not something that is readily available these days, at least not at any reasonable cost. But the SunShot vision [PDF] has always seen concentrating solar power with thermal storage capacity as an important part of the grid integration picture, along with increasingly flexible conventional generation, demand-side management, improved forecasting and, quite importantly, better transmission infrastructure -- all of which Kammen acknowledged.

“The lower estimated ratepayer cost is also partly attributable to the coordinated investment in new power plants, transmission lines, storage, and demand response in the Switch model,” he said. “Using such a comprehensive strategy could substantially reduce the actual consumer cost of meeting carbon emission targets.”


Editor's note: This article is reposted in its original form from EarthTechling. Author credit goes to Pete Danko.