US hits 180 GW of solar power. Here’s how we get to 1,000 by 2035.

A look back at the rise of solar power in the US and what's next.

This article is an installment of Future Explored, a weekly guide to world-changing technology. You can get stories like this one straight to your inbox every Saturday morning by subscribing here.

It’s 2035. The sun rises, and you wake up refreshed after eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. You slept like a baby, knowing that the morning light would soon be powering up a world driven by clean, zero-emissions solar power.

The rise of solar power

Today, the US generates just 4% of its electricity from solar, but the renewable resource is on the rise — since 2016, the number of solar installations in the nation has increased fivefold

The US hopes to continue this momentum, reaching the point that solar provides 30-50% of America’s electricity in ten years, as a milestone on the path to a completely decarbonized energy sector by 2050.

To find out how we could get there, let’s take a quick look at the history of solar in the US and the trends that could lead us into our sun-powered future. 

Where we’ve been 

Infographic titled "The Rise of Solar Power in the US" showcasing key milestones in solar power development from 1839 to 2024, highlighting technological advancements, installations, and relevant figures.

Where we’re going (maybe)

Collectively, the US’s 5 million solar installations can generate more than 179 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. Based on current trends, the SEIA claims that the US’s total solar capacity will soar to 673 GW by 2034, providing enough electricity to power 100 million homes. 

The US will likely need to do better than that to meet the Biden Administration’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, though. To decarbonize the grid by then, the Department of Energy (DoE) expects we’ll need as much as 1 terawatt (1,000 GWs) of solar capacity, enough for solar to meet 30-50% of the US’s electricity demand by itself.

A chart titled "Solar Deployment 2020-2050" shows projected installed solar capacity for both Decarbonized Grid and Energy System scenarios, with milestones marked at various years up to 2050.
Department of Energy

So, how do we get there?

Improve efficiency

While it’d be nice to think the recent surge in solar installations is driven entirely by Americans’ desire to stop climate change, the reality is that it probably has more to do with economics than environmentalism: solar is simply the cheapest energy option now.

“When you look at the cost trajectory, it’s incredible,” Jan Rosenow, director of European programs at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO focused on the clean energy transition, told Freethink.

Improvements in solar tech have been a primary driver of cost reductions — as solar panels became more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, the per-watt cost of solar power fell. 

Earlier this year, the DoE announced a $20 million funding opportunity for researchers with ideas for improving solar cell performance, and by continuing to invest in photovoltaic R&D, the US could facilitate tech breakthroughs that lower the cost of solar further. 

Bar chart showing the decline in installed costs of Residential PV and Utility-Scale PV (One-Axis Tracker) from 2010 to 2022, with cost components segmented by module, inverter, hardware, balance of systems, install labor, and soft costs.
NREL

Increase reliability

Solar is cleaner and cheaper than fossil fuels, but it can’t compete with coal and natural gas in terms of reliability — we can burn those any time we need electricity (“dispatchable” sources), but we can’t force the sun to shine 24/7, 365 days a year.

We can store excess solar power during the day in batteries to use after the sun sets, but the lithium-ion batteries currently used at some solar farms can only hold a charge for a few days or at most weeks, meaning we can’t use them to account for seasonal variations in sunlight. They’re also expensive and degrade over time.

A line graph showing solar PV capacity factor fluctuating from January 2022 to March 2024, depicting higher values in mid-year and lower values at the year's beginning and end. Source noted.

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only option for solar storage, though, and in 2024, the DoE plans to open the Grid Storage Launchpad (GSL), a $75 million R&D facility focused on exploring alternatives for storing excess solar and wind power, which could include flow batteries, thermal batteries, and even new kinds of batteries made with the help of AI

“The Grid Storage Launchpad facility will bring together researchers and industry from around the country to modernize and add flexibility to the power grid, advance storage technologies, and boost use of clean energy,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. 

Bar chart showing annual U.S. cumulative installed battery capacity in gigawatts from 2015 to 2025. Operational capacity increases steadily, with planned capacity sharply rising in 2024 and 2025.

Cut the red tape

Efficient, reliable solar tech is no use to anyone if it never leaves the lab, and right now, the process of securing approval to deploy a solar power system can be time-consuming and complicated.

Permitting reform at all levels of government can help address this for homeowners looking to install residential solar units, as can technologies like SolarAPP+, an automated permitting platform developed by the DoE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Securing approval to build a solar farm and connect it to the existing electric grid can be even more challenging, but permitting reform can help there, too — the Council on Environmental Quality, for example, just updated the National Environmental Policy Act to make it easier for solar developers to complete environmental reviews for projects.

“These rules implement both time and page limits for environmental reviews and authorize the agencies to take a more collaborative approach to the permitting process … The rules should also prevent lengthy reviews for lower impact infrastructure projects, freeing up valuable agency resources,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the SEIA.

Bar chart showing delays in solar and wind projects over five years. High delays in Permitting and Construction for both. Site control delays are fewer. Data from Energy Technologies Area and divisions.
Berkeley Lab
When Berkeley Lab surveyed solar industry professionals in 2023, it found that permitting was a major source of project delays.

Get on the same page

One of the biggest hurdles between the US and its goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035 is the fact that the fossil fuel industry is actively working to prevent the deployment of solar power and other forms of renewable energy.

“We’re building more solar than most people realize, but not fast enough to catch up with the physics of climate change,” Bill McKibben, author and climate activist, told Freethink. “It’s possible — technologically and financially — but the ongoing opposition of the fossil fuel industry slows everything down.”

Some of this opposition is policy-focused — in 2022, the fossil fuel industry spent $124.4 million on lobbying, often with the goal of preventing legislation that would help grow the solar industry — but oil companies have also been linked to misinformation campaigns designed to get private citizens to oppose proposed renewable energy projects in their communities.

Despite this, the share of electricity that’s generated by fossil fuels in the US (especially coal) is decreasing, while solar and other sources of clean energy are on the rise — suggesting that the fossil fuel industry’s efforts may only be slowing the transition, not stopping it.

The mission now? Accelerate the adoption of solar and other clean energy sources, such as wind, nuclear, and geothermal, by innovating to overcome obstacles, supporting policies that advance their deployment, and promoting accurate information in our communities.

Stacked area chart showing US electricity production by source (1985-2023). Natural gas and renewables rise, coal declines, nuclear and hydropower remain stable. Data source: Ember (2024).

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Related
Which technologies will enable a cleaner steel industry?
Technologies like hydrogen-based direct reduction of ore, electrolysis, and advanced furnace technologies could reduce steel emissions.
Six innovative ways to float skyscraper-sized wind turbines
While most offshore wind farms are firmly rooted in the seabed, engineers are developing new ways to float enormous wind turbines.
US will accelerate geothermal exploration on federal land
The Bureau of Land Management is taking steps to make it easier for public lands to be considered for geothermal power systems.
World’s biggest battery maker unveils grid-scale storage system
CATL, the world’s biggest battery manufacturer, just unveiled TENER, a new energy storage system for utility companies.
Future nuclear power reactors could rely on molten salts — but what about corrosion?
Proton irradiation decreases the rate of corrosion in certain metal alloys — potentially good news for promising nuclear power reactors .
Up Next
A solar-powered car races along a highway surrounded by sparse vegetation under a clear blue sky.
Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories