Solar energy could one day supply most of the world’s energy needs, but its current upsurge is in danger of ebbing, increasing the risk of catastrophic climate change. While solar energy is currently the world's cheapest and fastest-growing power source, if its growth falters, “few clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels are on track to compensate,” argues Varun Sivaram in Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet (MIT Press).
Rapid adoption of solar power has been fueled by inexpensive solar panels manufactured in China, but without large-scale investments in innovation, “today's red-hot solar market could cool down tomorrow," warns Sivaram, Philip D. Reed fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Fueling solar’s continued rise will take three kinds of innovation: financial innovation to recruit massive levels of investment in deploying solar energy; technological innovation to harness the sun’s energy more cheaply and store it to use around the clock; and systemic innovation to redesign systems like the power grid to handle the surges and slumps of solar energy.”
Sivaram calls on U.S. policymakers to once again lead on energy innovation. Under President Barack Obama, the United States spearheaded a commitment by all major global economies to double funding for energy research and development (R&D). But the Donald J. Trump administration has backtracked on that pledge, which would have increased federal energy R&D funding from $6.4 to $12.8 billion, and instead proposed a $2.5 billion funding cut. China, on the other hand, has committed to surpassing U.S. funding levels by the end of the decade.
“Even if China and other countries step up their funding for energy R&D, the United States has by far the most well-developed innovation institutions and top-flight talent; therefore, without U.S. leadership, the global pace of energy innovation will slow,” Sivaram writes, and the United States will fail to capture a significant piece of the growing solar industry.
Sivaram offers policy recommendations to “reshape solar into a global, technology-driven industry [that] would make use of and enhance U.S. strengths,” including
- expanding federal funding for programs like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) that encourage private sector investment;
- removing punitive tariffs on foreign imports while supporting advanced manufacturing at home; and
- increasing cooperation between federal and state governments to modernize the domestic power grid to accommodate greater use of solar power.
A Council on Foreign Relations Book
Educators: Access Teaching Notes for Taming the Sun.