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Varun Sivaram

Douglas Dillon Fellow and Acting Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change

Expertise

Clean energy technology; low-carbon transitions in emerging economies; physical science entrepreneurship and innovation; U.S. utility strategy and regulation; sustainable urbanization; energy and national security.

Bio

Varun Sivaram is the Douglas Dillon fellow and acting director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a strategic advisor to the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Reforming the Energy Vision, and he is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He is a member of the advisory boards for both the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy.

Before joining CFR, Dr. Sivaram was a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where he counseled Fortune 500 companies on adapting to the modern competitive landscape in energy. Prior to this role, he served as senior advisor for energy and water policy to the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, and oversaw the city’s Department of Water and Power.

Dr. Sivaram’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial TimesForeign Affairs, the Journal of Applied Physics, the Journal of Physical ChemistryNatureNature EnergyNature Climate Change, and Scientific American. A Truman and a Rhodes scholar, he holds degrees from Stanford University in engineering physics and international relations, with honors in international security. Dr. Sivaram holds a PhD in condensed matter physics from St. John’s College, Oxford University, where he developed third-generation solar photovoltaic coatings for building-integrated applications. He lives in Washington, DC.

Accelerating Clean Energy Innovation

Mitigating climate change will require adopting breakthrough clean energy technologies at scale. But investment in innovation around the world is anemic—public spending on research and development (R&D) is paltry compared with other priorities like biomedical, space, and defense technology, and private R&D investment is even less forthcoming. I study why this is the case—for example, why Silicon Valley investors have recently fled the clean energy technology sector—and what to do about it. In particular, I argue that new technology is needed in solar power, and the rise of current-generation silicon solar panels could lock the world into an inferior technology that cannot effect the low-carbon energy transition the world needs. To make this case, I’m writing a book, “Supercharging Solar: How Innovation Can Unlock the Most Abundant Energy Source on the Planet.”

For more, please read some of my publications on clean energy innovation or visit my blog on Energy, Security and Climate:

Also, check out the course website for the class I teach on clean energy innovation at Georgetown University (STIA 402).

Promoting India’s Sustainable Growth

The world’s fastest-growing economy, India could lift millions out of poverty, prop up a lackluster global economy, and advance geopolitical stability in Asia. To do all this, it will need a lot of energy—for example, the International Energy Agency predicts its power needs will quadruple by 2040. But if India continues to produce XX percent of its energy from fossil fuels like coal and oil, smog will increasingly choke its cities, it will remain energy-insecure, and it could become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Fortunately, under Prime Minister Modi, India for the first time in its history released a climate action plan, and it ratified the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. And the Modi administration has set an ambitious target for solar power: 100 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, nearly half of all the solar in the world at the end of 2015. Still, India is a long way from a truly sustainable energy policy, and I study ways that it can ramp up its use of renewable energy, take advantage of other low-carbon sources like natural gas, and reduce its energy demand (three-quarters of India’s buildings in the year 2040 are yet to be built—there is a huge opportunity to design buildings and whole cities to use less energy). For more, see my report, “Reach for the Sun: How India’s Audacious Solar Ambitions Could Make or Break its Climate Commitments,” published through Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.

Featured Publications

Foreign Affairs Article

The Clean Energy Revolution

Authors: Varun Sivaram and Teryn Norris

If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions drastically by the middle of this century—a target that is simply out of reach with existing technology. Varun Sivaram and his co-author present the case for a massive investment in clean energy research and development to reach that goal. 

See more in Global; Renewable Energy

Article

Venture Capital and Cleantech: The Wrong Model for Clean Energy Innovation

Author: Varun Sivaram
MIT Energy Initiative

Venture capital (VC) firms spent over $25 billion funding clean energy technology (cleantech) start-ups from 2006 to 2011 and lost over half their money; as a result, funding has dried up in the cleantech sector. In this report, we present the most comprehensive account to date of the cleantech VC boom and bust, aggregating hundreds of investments to calculate the risk/return profile of cleantech, compared with those of medical and software technology investments. The results are stark—cleantech offered VCs a dismal risk/return profile, dragged down by companies developing new materials, chemistries, or processes that never achieved manufacturing scale. We conclude that the VC model is broken for the cleantech sector, which suffers especially from a dearth of large corporations willing to invest in innovation. Fortunately, new public and private capital may be on the way after announcements made at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit. If a new and more diverse set of actors avoids the mistakes of the cleantech VC boom and bust, then they may be able to support a new generation of cleantech companies."

See more in Global; Energy and Environment

Article

Reach for the Sun: How India’s Audacious Solar Ambitions Could Make or Break its Climate Commitments

Author: Varun Sivaram
Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance

In this report, Varun Sivaram and co-authors argue that three very different segments of the Indian solar industry—utility-scale, distributed, and off-grid solar—will be required to deliver both climate results and domestic co-benefits to India. In addition, the Indian national and state governments, with the support of countries and institutions around the world, can advance the development of three diverse segments of the solar industry—utility-scale, distributed, and off-grid solar— by pursuing four building blocks of a successful solar strategy: (1) Reform the utility sector; (2) Harmonize federal and state policies; (3) Secure substantial and cost-effective financing; and (4) Foster the diffusion of technology and standards from abroad.

See more in India; Energy and Environment

All Publications

Article

Venture Capital and Cleantech: The Wrong Model for Clean Energy Innovation

Author: Varun Sivaram
MIT Energy Initiative

Venture capital (VC) firms spent over $25 billion funding clean energy technology (cleantech) start-ups from 2006 to 2011 and lost over half their money; as a result, funding has dried up in the cleantech sector. In this report, we present the most comprehensive account to date of the cleantech VC boom and bust, aggregating hundreds of investments to calculate the risk/return profile of cleantech, compared with those of medical and software technology investments. The results are stark—cleantech offered VCs a dismal risk/return profile, dragged down by companies developing new materials, chemistries, or processes that never achieved manufacturing scale. We conclude that the VC model is broken for the cleantech sector, which suffers especially from a dearth of large corporations willing to invest in innovation. Fortunately, new public and private capital may be on the way after announcements made at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit. If a new and more diverse set of actors avoids the mistakes of the cleantech VC boom and bust, then they may be able to support a new generation of cleantech companies."

See more in Global; Energy and Environment

Op-Ed

New International Energy Forum Focuses on Innovation

Authors: Varun Sivaram and Graham Pugh
The Hill

Last month, energy ministers from around the world gathered in San Francisco for the annual Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), which for the past seven years has focused on deploying existing clean energy technologies around the world. But for the first time, clean energy innovation was on the gathering’s agenda as well. In a parallel “Mission Innovation” Ministerial (MIM), twenty countries and the European Union — accounting for over 80 percent of the world’s public energy research and development (R&D) funding — committed to collectively double R&D funding to $30 billion by 2021.

See more in Global; Energy Policy; Climate Change

Foreign Affairs Article

The Clean Energy Revolution

Authors: Varun Sivaram and Teryn Norris

If the world is to avoid climate calamity, it needs to reduce its carbon emissions drastically by the middle of this century—a target that is simply out of reach with existing technology. Varun Sivaram and his co-author present the case for a massive investment in clean energy research and development to reach that goal. 

See more in Global; Renewable Energy

Article

Reach for the Sun: How India’s Audacious Solar Ambitions Could Make or Break its Climate Commitments

Author: Varun Sivaram
Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance

In this report, Varun Sivaram and co-authors argue that three very different segments of the Indian solar industry—utility-scale, distributed, and off-grid solar—will be required to deliver both climate results and domestic co-benefits to India. In addition, the Indian national and state governments, with the support of countries and institutions around the world, can advance the development of three diverse segments of the solar industry—utility-scale, distributed, and off-grid solar— by pursuing four building blocks of a successful solar strategy: (1) Reform the utility sector; (2) Harmonize federal and state policies; (3) Secure substantial and cost-effective financing; and (4) Foster the diffusion of technology and standards from abroad.

See more in India; Energy and Environment

Foreign Affairs Article

Leading From Between: How California and Germany Can Fix the Climate Agenda

Authors: Varun Sivaram and David Livingston

Climate talks have largely failed to curb rising temperatures, but bottom-up initiatives featuring subnational actors hold great promise if coordinated effectively. Varun Sivaram and David Livingston argue that California and Germany can “lead from between” to bridge international and subnational climate action.

See more in United States; Germany; Environmental Policy

Article

Ensuring Tesla Doesn't Crowd Out the Batteries of the Future

Author: Varun Sivaram
Forbes

Tesla is planning to scale up production of its lithium-ion batteries, which today power electric vehicles but tomorrow could back up the electricity grid, by building a massive “Gigafactory” in Nevada. Varun Sivaram argues that while positive in the short run, Tesla’s mediocre battery could crowd out more promising, advanced battery technologies in the long run, impeding long-term progress on climate change.

See more in Global; Renewable Energy

Article

Why Moore's Law Doesn't Apply to Clean Energy Technologies

Author: Varun Sivaram
Greentech Media

For fifty years, Moore’s Law has governed the startling pace of innovation in the computer chip industry. That Moore’s Law is an extraordinary phenomenon, unique to a single industry, is often forgotten by clean energy commentators who misappropriate it for predicting the progress of technologies like solar panels and batteries. Varun Sivaram argues that this sort of analogy is misleading, and that the clean energy sector should aspire to Moore-esque advances.

See more in Global; Renewable Energy; Clean Technology

Recent Activity from Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR Events

Meeting

CFR Back-to-School Event: International Efforts to Combat Climate Change

Speakers Michael A. Levi

David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and
Director, Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

, Varun Sivaram

Douglas Dillon Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Strategic Advisor, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision Initiative


Presider Amy Harder

Energy Reporter, Wall Street Journal


Introductory Speaker Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

October 2, 2015

This meeting is on the record.

Read Listen Watch

Press/Panels

Article

Solar power still needs to get much cheaper. Are perovskites the answer?

In the future, solar power won't just come from bulky blue panels on rooftops. The solar panels of tomorrow will be transparent, lightweight, flexible, and ultra-efficient. We'll be able to coat shingles or skylights or windows with them — and it'll all be as cheap as putting up wallpaper.

Listen

Video Interview

The Clean Energy Revolution

Varun Sivaram, Douglas Dillon Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, sits down with Foreign Affairs Deputy Managing Editor Stuart Reid to discuss his article, The Clean Energy Revolution, published in the May/June 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Watch

Article

The more disruptive, the better

in The Hindu Business Line, M. Ramesh quotes Varun Sivaram on the barriers and challenges in clean tech financing.

Article

The US 2016 budget is a gift to the energy industry

Writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dawn Stover quotes Varun Sivaram on his analysis, which finds that the end-of-the-year budget deal will substantially reduce carbon emissions. 

Article

Here’s why repealing the crude oil export ban wasn’t such a bad deal

In an article in Grist, Ben Adler quotes Varun Sivaram on his findings, which demonstrate the extension of the production and investment tax credits for wind and solar will reduce carbon emissions more than the lifting of the crude export ban will increase them over the next five years.

Article

The Ugly Truth Lurking Behind the Climate Talks

In an article in The New Republic, Jonthan Katz quotes Varun Sivaram on how quality, not quantity, of foreign aid to developing nations like India can help them leverage massive private capital flows for renewable energy projects.

Article

How India’s Solar Ambitions Can Become Reality

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Raymond Zhong profiles Varun Sivaram's paper on how India can accomplish it's ambitious goal of installing 100 GW of solar energy capacity by 2022.

Article

The Race to Remake the World’s Energy

In an article in The Atlantic, Heather Horn quotes Varun Sivaram on his work on cleantech innovation and the lessons that can be learned from Sweden and Denmark's cleantech sectors.

Article

Why Solar Power Could Hit a Ceiling

In an article in the MIT Technology Review, Mike Orcutt cites Varun Sivaram on his belief that the value of solar with fall by fifty percent when it constitutes fifteen percent of the energy mix, as well as his reccommendation that government and insutry should pursue a target of $0.25 per installed watt bty 2050.

Panel

The Future of Solar Energy

At Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, Varun Sivaram participated in a panel on The Future of Solar Energy, a study published by the MIT Energy Initiative. The study examines the technical, economic and policy dimensions of solar energy today and makes policy recommendation aimed at supporting the efficient and effective deployment of solar energy over the long-term.

Watch

Radio Interview

How Cheap Can Solar Get?

In the first episode of the podcast, The Interchange, Stephen Lacey and Shayle Kann talk with Varun Sivaram about the technology and rate design improvements needed to keep PV growth strong.

Listen

Article

Yieldcos Require Pipeline Growth to Recover From Oil, Fiscal Policy Impact

In a post for PV Insider, Katherine Steiner-Dicks cites Varun Sivaram’s explanation for why Yieldco share prices dropped sharply over the summer, as well as his prediction for the Yieldco value proposition after the expiration of the investment tax credit (ITC) in 2017.

Article

A New Sunbeam in the Solar Race

In an article in The Hindu Business Line, Ramesh Matham highlights the promise of perovskite cells' energy efficiency and cites Varun Sivaram’s belief that large solar companies could provide perovskites a viable path to commercialization.

Article

China’s Economy is in Trouble, but its Climate Efforts Are Not

In a piece in Grist, John Light quotes Varun Sivaram as saying that he believes, despite its slowing economic growth, China will keep its commitment to improving environmental conditions by increasing its share of renewable energy sources.

Article

Clouds Over China’s Solar Power Industry

In a post of The Climate News Network, Kieran Cooke cites Varun Sivaram’s analysis of the consequences of China’s dominance in the solar market.

Article

Innovation Sputters in Battle Against Climate Change

In a piece in the New York Times, Edwardo Porter refers to perovskite cells as a promising development in the renewable energy sector and includes a link to Varun Sivaram’s July 2015 interview with Brad Plumer of Vox.

Article

Still Waiting for Solar’s Day in the Sun

In an article in The American Interest, Varun Sivaram is quoted as saying that unsubsidized silicon solar panels are still nowhere near cost parity with conventional power sources, a goal which must be realized for a scaled shift to renewable energy sources.

Article

Did Tesla Just Start an Energy Revolution

In an article in Breaking Energy, Pete Danko references Varun Sivaram’s prediction that Tesla’s scaled production of lithium-ion batteries may hamper established and future experimental technologies that could greatly benefit the industry.

Article

India’s 100-GW Target: Impossible or Doable?

In a post in The Energy Mix, Varun Sivaram is quoted as asking whether India’s clean energy targets are attainable and in line with the country’s energy needs. 

Video Interview

How Los Angeles is Moving Towards Energy Independence

CNBC interviews Varun Sivaram to discuss how the city of Los Angeles became coal free in just over a decade and how L.A. can set an example for other large municipalities facing complex energy challenges.

Watch