On the Path to SunShot: The Environmental and Public Health Benefits of Achieving High Solar Penetrations in the United States

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Compared with fossil fuel generators, photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) produce far lower lifecycle levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and harmful pollutants including fine particular matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). In this report, we monetize the emission reductions from achieving the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot deployment goals: 14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050. We estimate that achieving these goals could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238-$252 billion. This is equivalent to 2.0-2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of solar installed (cents/kWh-solar). Similarly, realizing these levels of solar deployment could reduce cumulative power-sector emissions of PM2.5 by 8%, SO2 by 9%, and NOx by 11% between 2015 and 2050. This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4 cents/kWh-solar--while also preventing 25,000-59,000 premature deaths. To put this in perspective, this estimated combined benefit of 3.5 cents/kWh-solar due to SunShot-level solar deployment is approximately equal to the additional levelized cost of electricity reduction needed to make unsubsidized utility-scale solar competitive with conventional generators today. In addition, the analysis shows that achieving the SunShot goals could save 4% of total power-sector water withdrawals and 9% of total power-sector water consumption over the 2015-2050 period--a particularly important consideration for arid states where substantial solar will be deployed. These results have potential implications for policy innovation and the economic competitiveness of solar and other generation technologies.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages69
StatePublished - 2016

Bibliographical note


NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-65628


  • air pollution
  • benefits
  • carbon
  • carbon dioxide
  • climate change
  • CO2
  • concentrating solar power
  • CSP
  • environmental
  • externalities
  • greenhouse gas
  • health
  • nitrogen oxides
  • NOx
  • particulate matter
  • photovoltaic
  • PM
  • policy
  • PV
  • SO2
  • social cost of carbon
  • solar
  • sulfur dioxide
  • SunShot
  • water


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