Varun Sivaram

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Curious About Clean Energy Innovation? Take This Class

by Varun Sivaram
December 19, 2016

Fabrication of an organic solar photovoltaic cell in the lab (BASF) Fabrication of an organic solar photovoltaic cell in the lab (BASF)


This fall, I created and taught a course at Georgetown University called “Clean Energy Innovation.” The course, offered to undergraduates studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs (STIA) in the School of Foreign Service (SFS), introduced the science, economics, and public policies related to breakthrough technologies that could jumpstart the U.S. economy and are the world’s best hope to confront climate change.

Now that the semester is over, all of the lecture videos are freely available online on the course website. You can also view the slides used in each lecture as well as the syllabus, which lists a collection of essential articles and book chapters. The course doesn’t have prerequisites (though there is a bit of math!), and I created it in order to offer a one-stop offering for anyone who is interested in understanding the range of topics that clean energy innovation encompasses.

For more on those topics, check out the video below, which is an introduction to and overview of the class:

We started the semester by examining technological change over the centuries—studying the shifts from waterwheels to power plants, coaches to cars, floppy disks to USB sticks—to understand how innovation unfolds and why it’s particularly difficult in the ossified energy sector. We then delved into the scientific foundations and research frontiers of several major clean energy technology categories in the electric power sector: solar; wind; nuclear; batteries; fuel cells; carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration; hydro; geothermal; and the power grid. Finally, we concluded with a look at how to fund energy innovation, why start-ups can languish in the valley of death, and how federal and local governments can provide an “extended pipeline” of support for research, development, demonstration, and deployment of new technologies. But it is private investors and firms that must ultimately supply most of the investment to commercialize breakthroughs, so the course focuses on the role of the private sector in innovation.

Interspersed with the lecture videos, you’ll find Georgetown students presenting the assigned readings—crisply, comprehensively, and creatively. These students blew me away by building on the basics introduced in class and developing new research directions. One student wrote an article for the Brookings Institution arguing that “investment in lithium-ion batteries may crowd out future innovation.” Another’s term paper statistically analyzed various success metrics for the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) to propose funding a coherent, multigenerational portfolio of clean energy technologies, similarly to how the Defense Department’s DARPA operates.

So if you’re curious about clean energy innovation, take this class. And I’m eager to hear your feedback on how I can improve it for future editions.

I’m grateful to Joanna Lewis, Chuck Weiss, and Mark Giordano at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, as well as Varun Rai at UT Austin, for guidance in creating this course. I’m also indebted to Chuck Weiss, Bill Bonvillian, Colin McCormick, and Dan Stout for delivering phenomenal guest lectures this semester. Watch their lectures on the course website at


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