Utility-scale PV systems in the ATB are representative of one-axis tracking systems with performance characteristics in line with a 1.1 DC-to-AC ratio - or inverter loading ratio (ILR) - and pricing characteristics in line with a 1.2 DC-to-AC ratio (Fu et al. 2016). PV system performance characteristics were designed in the ReEDS model at a time when PV system ILRs were lower than they are in current system designs; pricing in the 2017 ATB incorporates more up-to-date system designs and therefore assumes a higher ILR.
Solar resources across the United States are mostly good to excellent at about 1,000-2,500 kWh/m2/year. The Southwest is at the top of this range, while Alaska and part of Washington are at the low end. The range for the contiguous United States is about 1,350-2,500 kWh/m2/year. Nationwide, solar resource levels vary by about a factor of two.
The total U.S. land area suitable for PV is significant and will not limit PV deployment. One estimate (Denholm and Margolis 2008) suggests the land area required to supply all end-use electricity in the United States using PV is about 5,500,000 hectares (ha) (13,600,000 acres), which is equivalent to 0.6% of the country's land area or about 22% of the "urban area" footprint (this calculation is based on deployment/land in all 50 states).
Renewable energy technical potential, as defined by Lopez et al. (2012), represents the achievable energy generation of a particular technology given system performance, topographic limitations, and environmental and land-use constraints. The primary benefit of assessing technical potential is that it establishes an upper-boundary estimate of development potential. It is important to understand that there are multiple types of potential - resource, technical, economic, and market (Lopez et al. 2012; NREL, "Renewable Energy Technical Potential").
The Base Year estimates rely on modeled CAPEX and O&M estimates benchmarked with industry and historical data. Capacity factor is estimated based on hours of sunlight at latitude for all geographic locations in the United States. The ATB presents capacity factor estimates that encompass a range associated with low, mid, and high levels across the United States.
Future year projections are derived from analysis of published projections of PV CAPEX and bottom-up engineering analysis of O&M costs. Three different projections were developed for scenario modeling as bounding levels:
Fu, Ran, Donald Chung, Travis Lowder, David Feldman, Kristen Ardani, and Robert Margolis. 2016. U.S. Photovoltaic (PV) Prices and Cost Breakdowns: Q1 2016 Benchmarks for Residential, Commercial, and Utility-Scale Systems. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/PR-6A20-67142. September 2016. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy16osti/67142.pdf.
Lopez, Anthony, Billy Roberts, Donna Heimiller, Nate Blair, and Gian Porro. 2012. U.S. Renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/TP-6A20-51946. http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/51946.pdf.