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Varun Sivaram

Douglas Dillon Fellow

Expertise

Renewable energy technology; 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 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, Foreign Affairs, the Journal of Applied Physics, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, Nature, Nature Energy, Nature 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.

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

All 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

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

Op-Ed

Congress Shouldn't Cut Military Research on Climate Change

Author: Varun Sivaram
The Hill

The new House budget sets a deadline of October 1 to “cut waste, eliminate redundancies and end the abuse or misuse of taxpayer dollars,” and it specifically targets the Department of Defense (DOD) for spending “part of their budget studying climate change.” Varun Sivaram highlights how the military’s broad portfolio of climate change adaptation efforts should not be considered redundant or wasteful because it bolsters American national security interests.

See more in United States; Climate Change; Budget, Debt, and Deficits

Op-Ed

"Do India's Renewable Energy Targets Make Sense?"

Author: Varun Sivaram
CFR Blog: Energy, Security, and Climate

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government recently set a target of 100 GW of solar panels in India by 2022, a target that would leapfrog India over all developed countries. Varun Sivaram critically examines how realistic the Modi Government’s ambition is for India to become the “renewable energy capital of the world.”

See more in India; Renewable Energy

Op-Ed

Can Solar Solve India's Energy Woes?

Authors: Varun Sivaram and K. Dhru
World Economic Forum

As the world’s fourth largest consumer of electricity and the fastest growing source of global greenhouse gas emissions, India faces pressure to meet basic energy needs as well as to do its part in combating climate change. Solar power is so attractive because it promises to address both issues, but today it accounts for only 2%-3% of India’s energy demand, and India’s leadership will have to make several difficult decisions if this is to change, says Varun Sivaram.

See more in India; Energy Policy

Op-Ed

Los Angeles and Connecticut: A Continent Apart, Similar Paths to Clean Energy

Authors: Varun Sivaram and Daniel C. Esty
EnergyBiz Magazine

Both Connecticut and Los Angeles are pursuing cheaper, cleaner and more reliable renewable power generation during a decline in federal funding for clean energy projects. Along with Energy Commissioner Dan Esty, Varun Sivaram explains how this state and city are each leading the way to offer creative new approaches to financing clean energy initiatives and pursing a more reliable energy future.

See more in United States; Renewable Energy

Article

Observation of Annealing-Induced Doping in TiO2 Mesoporous Single Crystals for Use in Solid State Dye Sensitized Solar Cells

Authors: Varun Sivaram, E.J.W. Crossland, T. Leijtens, N. Noel, J.A. Alexander-Webber, P. Docampo, and H.J. Snaith
Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

Varun Sivaram and co-authors improve the performance of third-generation solar photovoltaic cells, based on perovskite technology, by investigating fundamental electronic processes.

See more in Global; Energy Policy

Article

Powering Los Angeles with Renewable Energy

Authors: Varun Sivaram, Antonio R. Villaraigosa, and R. Nichols
Nature Climate Change

The City of Los Angeles is nearly two thirds of the way towards its goal of generating a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.  Cities around the world can glean valuable technical, economic and political lessons from its experience, writes Varun Sivaram.

See more in United States; Renewable Energy

Article

Route to Mesoporous Anatase TiO2 Single-Crystals Exhibiting Superior Mobility and Enhanced Optoelectronic Device Performance

Authors: Varun Sivaram, E. Crossland, N. Noel, T. Leijtens, J.A. Webber, and H.J. Snaith
Nature

Varun Sivaram, along with co-authors, develop a new type of crystalline material that has applications in solar panels, batteries, and other electronics. This paper has been cited over 200 times in the academic literature.

See more in Global; Energy and Environment

Recent Activity from Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR Events

Meeting

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

Introductory Speaker Irina A. Faskianos

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


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

October 2, 2015

This meeting is on the record.

Read Listen Watch

Press/Panels

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