Varun Sivaram

Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

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Showing posts for "Innovation"

Curious About Clean Energy Innovation? Take This Class

by Varun Sivaram
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. Read more »

Four Things I Learned from Visiting Argonne National Laboratory

by Varun Sivaram
Simulation of charging the Chevrolet Volt’s lithium-ion battery, developed jointly with Argonne National Laboratory (General Motors) Simulation of charging the Chevrolet Volt’s lithium-ion battery, developed jointly with Argonne National Laboratory (General Motors)

For seventy years, Argonne has hosted cutting-edge scientific research. The first national laboratory in the United States, Argonne was created in 1946 as an extension of the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear technology. Today, its research spans high-energy physics, supercomputing, and advanced materials, but I paid a visit to Argonne last month for one reason in particular: the Laboratory has established itself as a thriving hub for research on battery energy storage. Read more »

Pairing Push and Pull Policies: A Heavy-Duty Model for Innovation

by Varun Sivaram
The Peterbilt SuperTruck makes a stop as its tests in fuel efficiency on the road (U.S. Department of Energy) The Peterbilt SuperTruck makes a stop as it tests its fuel efficiency on the road (U.S. Department of Energy)

This post is co-authored by Sagatom Saha, research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

When policymakers mandate adoption of a particular technology, they run the risk that the technology may not yet exist or is too expensive for consumers. Similarly, when the government funds research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) of new technologies, it can’t be sure that any advances it underwrites will get picked up by the private sector and successfully taken to market. Even if the government pursues both activities separately—“pulling” technologies into the market through mandates or standards and “pushing” the development of new technologies through RD&D funding—these risks don’t go away. Read more »

Why the Silicon Valley Model Failed Cleantech

by Varun Sivaram
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)

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 »