Without Significant New Investment in Innovation, Solar Energy’s Growth Will Stall

Last updated March 5, 2018

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March 5, 2018—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.”

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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.

For more information, please visit cfr.org/TamingTheSun. To interview Sivaram, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or communications@cfr.org.

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Early praise for Taming the Sun:

“Solar energy could be a boon to mankind and the environment, but it’s going to need a lot more support and entrepreneurial and policy dynamism. Varun Sivaram . . . lays out this case in what may be the first important policy book of 2018.” —Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg View

“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 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

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