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Energy, Security, and Climate

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Showing posts for "Innovation"

Why the Silicon Valley Model Failed Cleantech

by Varun Sivaram
An organic solar cell is spin-coated onto a glass substrate (BASF SE) An organic solar cell is spin-coated onto a glass substrate (BASF SE)

It’s no secret that venture capital (VC) has fled from the clean energy technology (cleantech) sector, and as a result, new cleantech company formation has slowed. But why did this happen, and is there a future for cleantech?

To answer these questions, today I’m excited to release an MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) paper entitled, “Venture Capital and Cleantech: The Wrong Model for Energy Innovation,” with my colleagues Ben Gaddy at the Clean Energy Trust and Frank O’Sullivan at MITEI. Read more »

Securitization: The Next Big Thing in Solar Energy Financing

by Varun Sivaram
Vivint Solar technicians install solar panels on the roof of a house in California (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni). Vivint Solar technicians install solar panels on the roof of a house in California (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni).

This post was co-written by Sagatom Saha, research associate for energy and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Recent headlines from the solar energy industry have been bleak. SunEdison—a solar developer which just a year ago aspired to join the ranks of multinational oil companies as an energy “supermajor”—declared bankruptcy in April, after wiping out $9 billion in market value. And the share prices of Yieldcos, the financial vehicles which promised to tap vast capital markets to finance renewable energy projects, have plummeted as well. Last year, I wrote that Yieldcos’ aggressive growth targets and financial model made them vulnerable to the vicious downward spiral that has played out. Read more »

Lessons in Cleantech Success from Scandinavia (Pt. 1): The Puzzle

by Varun Sivaram
Department of NREL engineers review a simulation of the Lillgrund Wind Farm in Denmark (U.S. Department of Energy)

This post is co-written by Ben Armstrong and Varun Sivaram. Ben is a Ph.D. Candidate at MIT focused on Political Economy and a researcher at the MIT Governance Lab.

A global race is underway to dominate the clean technology (“cleantech”) sector. As international efforts to curb climate change intensify (the Paris climate talks kick off next week), demand for cleantech products that generate energy from renewable sources and reduce emissions will grow.  Countries that invent and scale such products will reap the economic benefits. For those seeking to understand why some countries are successful at building thriving cleantech sectors and others less so, a pair of Scandinavian neighbors—nearly twins in many economic and political respects—present a puzzle worth pondering. Read more »

Why University Research Is More Important Than Ever

by Varun Sivaram
Stanford University, California (Wikimedia Commons) Stanford University, California (Wikimedia Commons)

A dangerous ideological current is coursing through the intellectual circuit, a political conviction dressed up as an empirical theory. Its proponents argue that public funding of basic scientific research is, at best, a waste of money and, at worst, an actively counterproductive endeavor that crowds out the private sector’s innovative instincts. And the institutions in the crosshairs of these broadsides are U.S. research universities, the country’s most valuable assets in a global economy driven by innovation. Read more »

Five Things I Learned About the Future of Solar Power and the Electricity Grid

by Varun Sivaram
The entrance to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado The entrance to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado (U.S. Department of Energy)

Nestled in the foothills of the Rockies in Golden, Colorado, the Energy Department’s  National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) was established in 1977 to help bring new energy technologies to market. Today it is one of seventeen national laboratories overseen by the Energy Department and the only one whose sole focus is renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. I spent a full day touring the facilities and interviewing researchers working on a range of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies and on integration of clean energy into the electricity grids of the future. Here’s what I learned: Read more »

To Succeed, Solar Perovskites Need to Escape the Ivory Tower

by Varun Sivaram
Solar perovskite cells, patterned with gold electrodes, await tests that measure their efficiency at converting sunlight into electricity Solar perovskite cells, patterned with gold electrodes, await tests that measure their efficiency at converting sunlight into electricity (Plamen Petkov)

What will tomorrow’s solar panels look like? This week, along with colleagues from Oxford and MIT, I published a feature in Scientific American making the case for cheap and colorful solar coatings derived from a new class of solar materials: perovskites. In this post, I’ll critically examine prospects for commercialization of solar perovskites, building on our article’s claim that this technology could represent a significant improvement over current silicon solar panels. We argue: Read more »

Three Graphs That Resource Pessimists Don’t Want You to See

by Blake Clayton

My last post noted that inflation-adjusted natural resource prices—even for exhaustible resources—tend to fall over time. This trend surprises people who think that prices are doomed to rise indefinitely because it gets more and more expensive to mine/grow/pump these resources in larger volumes over time. So what’s behind the downtrend? Read more »

Bad News for Pessimists Everywhere: Malthus Was Wrong

by Blake Clayton

There is a tempting intuition to the idea that the real prices of non-renewable goods like coal, iron ore, or oil should rise, more or less, forever. It’s an easy argument to make, and it sounds right: The world’s population is getting bigger and bigger, so more and more goods like metals and hydrocarbons are being consumed. Every year, the sum total of what we’ve taken out of the ground mounts, never to be replaced. Supply of the stuff is limited—once it’s gone, it’s gone. So, this argument goes, as we exhaust our resources, we’ll have to mine, drill, or otherwise get our hands on it somehow but it will get more and more expensive to do so, because we’ll have exhausted the best stuff. Left to exploit ever-greater quantities of ever-more-marginal deposits, prices will rise indefinitely into the future. Read more »

Overselling Energy Innovation

by Michael Levi

Innovation will be critical to confronting the world’s energy problems, but the promise of energy innovation has too often been oversold. In an essay in the new issue of Issues in Science and Technology I explain why.

In the wake of the Copenhagen debacle and the collapse of cap-and-trade, Americans have been searching for new ways to tackle climate change. One of the most popular ideas to emerge has been a call to focus on energy innovation. Proponents of this approach argue that focusing on making clean energy cheaper rather than on making dirty energy more expensive would transform the domestic and international politics (and perhaps economics) of climate and energy policy. Read more »