from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Taming the Sun

Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet

Solar energy is the world’s cheapest and fastest-growing power source, but its rise is in danger of stalling. Varun Sivaram argues that realizing solar's potential will require innovation—creative financing, revolutionary technologies, and flexible energy systems.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Read an excerpt from Taming the Sun.

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).

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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

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  • 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.

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Reviews and Endorsements

The book is both the best available overview of where the industry finds itself today, and a road map for how it can reach that brighter future. . . . Sivaram says he wanted to give an 'even-handed' take, and he has done so with his detailed look at the promise and the pitfalls of solar power. . . . Anyone who wants to understand how the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy might play out should take notice of the case Sivaram makes.

Financial Times

Varun Sivaram takes us inside the world of alternative-energy innovation. He’s an optimist, but a realistic one: he knows time is running short for the public and private sectors to join forces. Taming the Sun is a must-read look into the limitless potential of an energy source as timeless as the sun that may very well save the earth.

John F. Kerry, Former U.S. Secretary of State; Former U.S. Senator (D-MA)

Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet . . . may be the first important policy book of 2018. . . . This book is full of useful information, a pleasure to read, and more generally a model for how to write about science, technology, and policy. It will definitely make my 2018 'best books of the year' list.

Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg View, Marginal Revolution

Taming the Sun makes a compelling case that not confronting climate change could have dire consequences and, at the same time, makes a powerful case for the promise of solar energy. Everyone from physicists to investors to legislators should find the book instructive. Sivaram is evenhanded and nonideological in building his argument, but as he makes clear, progress ultimately depends on the political will to act.

Robert Rubin, Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury; Former Co-Chairman of Goldman Sachs

In Taming the Sun, Varun Sivaram makes a levelheaded yet compelling case for the role that solar energy can play in addressing climate change. Coming from a scientific and policy perspective, his book introduces not only the solar technologies that are potentially important, but also what is required to fully commercialize them from a scaling, funding, and policy perspective. It is an important and nonideological contribution to important discussion and decision-making in a critical arena.

Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Unlike any time since 1900, the world’s energy system is in play. The futures—what society wants, and what will actually happen—are hard to fathom, yet vitally important. Solar power lies at the center of this drama. Elegantly written and expertly argued, Varun Sivaram’s new book is a stellar guide to the technologies and policies that will determine whether solar power meets its potential. His sober optimism is infectious.

David G. Victor, Professor, University of California, San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy; Co-Chair, Brookings Institution Energy Security and Climate Initiative

Solar is the fastest-growing energy industry in the world, and it is at the heart of the clean energy revolution that is transforming technologies and economies around the world. Varun Sivaram’s new book is an important primer about the global solar-energy industry and the potential this energy source has to improve the lives of people and to help protect our planet and our future.

Ed Markey, U.S. Senator (D-MA); Chair, Senate Climate Change Action Task Force

If you want to understand the history and the future of solar energy—one of the most important and transformative technologies of the twenty-first century—Taming the Sun is the book to read. Sivaram brings to bear scientific expertise in the most exciting frontiers of solar photovoltaics and interweaves science with business insights and nonpartisan policy recommendations. The result is the authoritative, balanced, and comprehensive text that the field has been waiting for.

Arun Majumdar, Professor and Co-Director of Stanford University's Precourt Institute for Energy; Former Founding Director of ARPA-E and U.S. Undersecretary of Energy

The power of solar energy has transformed on-grid and off-grid energy access discussions, yet many are not aware of these tremendous advances. This book is a wonderful guide to this clean energy revolution.

Dan Kammen, Professor, University of California, Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and Goldman School of Public Policy

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