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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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 »

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 »

Lessons in Cleantech Success from Scandinavia (Pt. 2): The Importance of the Danish Manufacturing Revival

by Varun Sivaram
A eletricity pole transporting wind energy to Danish cities and industries in Valsgaard, northern Jutland (Reuters/Henning Bagger)

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.

In Part 1 of this series, we posed a puzzle: why has Denmark had more success at clean tech innovation than its neighbor, Sweden? Neither demand-pull conditions, which provide a sales environment that invites innovation, nor technology-push factors, which directly support technology research, development, and demonstration, appears to favor Denmark over Sweden. Both countries have similar environmental policies and environmentally conscious populaces, and Sweden has actually been more successful than Denmark in inducing other forms of innovation, especially in information and communications technology (ICT). But Denmark leads by a substantial margin in patents for climate change mitigation and the commercialization of eco-friendly technology. What explains Denmark’s outperformance in cleantech? 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 »

Keystone, Science, and Politics

by Michael Levi

Jeff Tollefson has an excellent new piece in Nature exploring the debate within the scientific community over Keystone XL. It makes two things pretty clear. As a matter of substance, there’s pretty much no one beyond Jim Hansen willing to come close to endorsing the “game over” claim. Yet there’s still a ton division among scientists – it’s over political tactics instead. Ken Caldeira captures the situation well: “I don’t believe that whether the pipeline is built or not will have any detectable climate effect,” he tells Nature. Nonetheless, here’s his bottom line: “The Obama administration needs to signal whether we are going to move toward zero-emission energy systems or whether we are going to move forward with last century’s energy system”. That sort of sentiment is political– and there’s nothing wrong with it – but, as the Nature article nicely shows, it’s distinct from any scientific debate. Read more »

What the Higgs Boson Tells Us About Climate Skeptics

by Michael Levi

Scientists around the world are celebrating the discovery of the Higgs boson. Last December, researchers announced that they might have glimpsed the elusive particle, but refrained from declaring victory, since there was a one percent chance that their result was a fluke. Now they’re confident: the odds of error in the new calculations are less than one in three million. Read more »

Yellow Flags On A New Methane Study

by Michael Levi

A forthcoming paper in the influential Journal of Geophysical Research has measured concentrations of methane and other alkanes in air near oil and gas operations in Weld County, Colorado, and has used that to infer rates of methane leakage from natural gas production in the region. Their results, which were reported last week by Nature and the Associated Press, point to much higher methane emissions than consensus inventories have previously found. Indeed some have read the results as confirming the highly controversial estimates of methane leakage published last year by Cornell professor Robert Howarth and his colleagues. Read more »