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MITEI releases report on the future of solar energy

Report highlights enormous potential and discusses pathways toward affordable solar energy.
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Solar panels on a grassy ridge

Solar energy holds the best potential for meeting humanity’s future long-term energy needs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions — but to realize this potential will require increased emphasis on developing lower-cost technologies and more effective deployment policy, says a comprehensive new study, titled “The Future of Solar Energy,” released today by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI).

“Our objective has been to assess solar energy’s current and potential competitive position and to identify changes in U.S. government policies that could more efficiently and effectively support its massive deployment over the long term, which we view as necessary,” says MITEI Director Robert Armstrong, the Chevron Professor in Chemical Engineering at MIT.

The study’s chair, Richard Schmalensee, the Howard W. Johnson Professor Emeritus of Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, adds, “What the study shows is that our focus needs to shift toward new technologies and policies that have the potential to make solar a compelling economic option.”

The study group is presenting its findings to lawmakers and senior administration officials this week in Washington.

“The Future of Solar Energy” reflects on the technical, commercial, and policy dimensions of solar energy today and makes recommendations to policymakers regarding more effective federal and state support for research and development, technology demonstration, and solar deployment.

Among its major themes is the need to prepare our electricity systems, both technically and from a regulatory standpoint, for very large-scale deployment of solar generation — which tends to vary unpredictably throughout the day. To this end, the study emphasizes the need for federal research and development support to advance low-cost, large-scale electricity storage technologies.

The analysis finds that today’s federal and state subsidy programs designed to encourage investment in solar systems should be reconsidered, to increase their cost-effectiveness, with greater emphasis on rewarding production of solar energy. 

The group also recommends that state renewable portfolio standards, which are designed to increase generation of electricity from renewable resources, be brought under a unified national program that would reduce the cost of meeting set mandates by allowing unrestricted interstate trading of credits.

The study concludes by pointing to the urgent need for an ambitious and innovative approach to technology development, with federal research and development investment focused on new technologies and systems with the potential to deliver transformative system cost reductions.

The MIT “Future of …” studies are a series of multidisciplinary reports that examine the role various energy sources could play in meeting future energy demand under carbon dioxide emissions constraints. These comprehensive reports are written by multidisciplinary teams of MIT researchers. The research is informed by an external advisory committee.

Press Mentions

New York Times

New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter writes about the lack of investment in developing technologies to combat climate change, highlighting a recent MIT report on the future of solar power. In the report, MIT researchers examined the challenges to making solar a bigger share of the world’s energy. 

The Wall Street Journal

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Brian Potts highlights the MIT Energy Initiative’s (MITEI) report on the future of solar energy. Potts writes that solar subsidies should be reconsidered, citing the MITEI report’s findings that “net metering is inefficient and should be redesigned.”

CBS News

A report from the MIT Energy Initiative recommends that U.S. policymakers change their approach to solar technology, reports Erik Sherman for CBS News. “Unless a substantial price is put on carbon dioxide emissions, expanding solar output to levels needed to fight climate change will be cost prohibitive without major change in government policy,” Sherman writes. 

The Washington Post

Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick writes that a team of MIT engineers has won top prize in a competition designed to spur innovation in desalination technologies for a solar-powered system they developed. “The system, when fully operational, can supply the basic water needs of a village of between 2,000 and 5,000 people,” Warrick explains. 


A new MITEI report outlines actions the U.S. government could take to facilitate large-scale deployment of solar energy, reports Yeganeh Torbati for Reuters. "Ideally ... rather than subsidize investment, we would subsidize production," says Francis O’Sullivan, an author of the report. 


Professor Richard Schmalensee speaks with Ben Johnson of Marketplace about a new report by the MIT Energy Initiative on the state of solar technology. “Federal R&D policy needs to look toward transformative new technologies not just marginal improvements on the stuff we have today,” says Schmalensee. 

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