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What's needed for solar to power the world

Taming the Sun book cover
Cover of Taming the Sun; a Council on Foreign Relations book published by the MIT Press.

Solar power expert Varun Sivaram is getting lots of buzz for his just-published book Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Why it matters: Sivaram warns that absent major innovations, solar's current boom will hit a ceiling that's far below its potential to fight climate change and provide affordable energy worldwide.

  • “I believe in solar. I am highly optimistic. But I also think we are being complacent if we think we are on the right track today. We are not," Sivaram, who is with the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Axios.

The big goal: Have solar provide a third of global electricity by mid-century, and the majority of all energy — not just power — by 2100 as it transforms industrial systems and transportation too. His proposals include . . .

  • Enhanced government-sponsored R&D in next-wave tech, such as liquid fuels and advances in perovskite coatings.
  • Innovations in finance and policy that will deploy more private capital to solar projects.
  • Changes to the wider energy system, such as major new high-voltage interstate transmission, that enable greater penetration.

Here are a few big ideas from our recent chat . . .

His advice for the powerful oil-and-gas industry execs now gathered in Houston at the massive CERAWeek conference . . .

  • “If you are an energy super-major, you need to recognize that solar has come of age. Solar is no longer David to fossil fuels' goliath,” he said.

That means, he said, thinking of how to deploy gas with carbon capture to compliment solar in a decarbonized power sector of the future.

But the book also looks at tech that can harness solar for more than just electricity applications by expanding to transportation fuels and industrial uses.

  • “The oil-and-gas industry probably thinks that clean fuels are way over the horizon, and right now they are right. But if my policy recommendations are taken seriously, if we pump money, federal dollars, into research, development and demonstration of solar fuels, and artificial leaf technology really takes off — and it has made some remarkable strides in laboratories — then I think fossil fuel companies will start taking it seriously.”

Response to advocates who fear that emphasizing R&D saps focus from deploying current zero-carbon tech now . . .

  • “I don’t have time for this tribalism, and the energy sector doesn’t either,” he said.
  • “This is not an either/or question, and people who raise this point of, ‘we should just be focusing on deployment to the exclusion of innovation,’ I think are a fringe group of folks that have taken up too much oxygen. This is straightforward. We need everything. I always talk about a portfolio approach that applies to our focus on innovation and deployment,” Sivaram said.

The potential for batteries . . .

Sivaram cautions against overemphasis on the role battery technology can play in decarbonizing transportation and storing solar power.

“The silver bullet approach to transportation seems to be let’s just deploy a ton of lithium-ion battery-based electric vehicles. That is one important part of what should be a portfolio of solutions,” he said.

Looking at the energy system more broadly, he said, "There’s this whole battery of approaches, and only one of them is a battery.”

One idea he thinks Trump could embrace . . .

Building interstate, high-voltage transmission lines as part of the vastly larger grids to transmit more solar.

  • “I think the Trump agenda is pro-infrastructure and it is pro-transmission line,” said Sivaram.

And conservatives more broadly . . .

  • “Another thing that I think is consistent with the Republican outlook is that I argue that we are in a new era of solar energy and we need a new era of solar policies.”

Part of that, he said, is moving away from tax subsidies and other direct project supports that will mushroom in cost worldwide as solar expands.

  • “These are not the policies of the future, and I think Republicans are on board with that,” he said.
  • “We need, instead, if we are going to get massive amounts of capital, in the developed world I think governments actually need to get out of the way. Cut subsidies both for solar and the oil and gas industry. Just get rid of them,” Sivaram said while noting the need for transmission investment.
  • “My overall recommendation is a carbon price to level the playing field, and research, development and demonstration funding, and get rid of all of the subsidies. I think that is a good, overarching policy framework that is palatable to Republicans,” he said.