Varun Sivaram earned his doctorate researching novel solar materials, but when he graduated in 2013, it wasn’t clear where he could apply those skills in the private sector.
Very few startups working on advanced approaches had survived the clean-tech bust of the early 2010s. Commodity silicon solar panels, mostly made in China, dominated the business.
That experience prompted him to begin exploring what changes to the innovation system would be required in order to develop better and cheaper clean energy technologies. In studies and books, Sivaram argued that governments must provide far more funding and early policy support for crucial technologies. He also concluded that solar power would still require significant advances to generate an ever larger share of electricity.
He worked on these issues directly as chief technology officer at ReNew Power, a large Indian renewable energy company. Now he’s joined the Biden administration, where he advises John Kerry, the US climate czar, and serves as his senior director for clean energy, innovation, and competitiveness. Sivaram traveled to India with Kerry, who negotiated a partnership to help that nation achieve its 2030 climate goals. Those include reaching 450 gigawatts of renewable capacity.
Sivaram believes that innovation is the most powerful lever the US has to help the rest of the world raise its climate ambitions. Driving down the cost of carbon-free technologies makes it cheaper, easier, and more politically palatable to accelerate the shift to emissions-free energy. Sivaram adds that this is particularly crucial for poorer nations, which often can’t afford to sacrifice economic growth. Without such advances, emissions in emerging economies will soar in coming decades, he warns.