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).
Solar energy, once a niche application for a limited market, has become the cheapest and fastest-growing power source on earth. What’s more, its potential is nearly limitless—every hour the sun beams down more energy than the world uses in a year.
But in Taming the Sun, energy expert Varun Sivaram warns that the world is not yet equipped to harness erratic sunshine to meet most of its energy needs. And if solar’s current surge peters out, prospects for replacing fossil fuels and averting catastrophic climate change will dim.
His book details, how solar could spark a clean-energy transition through transformative innovation—creative financing, revolutionary technologies, and flexible energy systems.
Innovation can brighten those prospects, Sivaram explains, drawing on firsthand experience and original research spanning science, business, and government. Financial innovation is already enticing deep-pocketed investors to fund solar projects around the world, from the sunniest deserts to the poorest villages. Technological innovation could replace today’s solar panels with coatings as cheap as paint and employ artificial photosynthesis to store intermittent sunshine as convenient fuels. And systemic innovation could add flexibility to the world’s power grids and other energy systems so they can dependably channel the sun’s unreliable energy.
Unleashing all this innovation will require visionary public policy: funding researchers developing next-generation solar technologies, refashioning energy systems and economic markets, and putting together a diverse clean energy portfolio. Although solar can’t power the planet by itself, it can be the centerpiece of a global clean energy revolution.
The Economist wrote of the book: “The book is not gloomy. It lays out the history, promise, and pitfalls of solar technology with an easy-going lack of wonkishness. But it offers a sobering message that may be as prescient—and as readable—as Robert Shiller’s Irrational Exuberance was before the dotcom and housing crises of the 2000s.”
“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.
Sivaram leads the energy and climate program at the Council on Foreign Relations, is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University teaching “clean energy innovation” and is the strategic adviser to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office. Previously, he advised Hillary Clinton’s campaign on energy policy, worked at McKinsey & Co. and with two solar start-ups. A Rhodes scholar, Sivaram completed his Ph.D. at Oxford University and is on the advisory boards for Stanford’s energy and environment institutes.