Book review: ‘Taming the Sun’ by Varun Sivaram

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Sustaining the current level of investment in solar power will require more than just technical innovation, says Varun Sivaram in the new book ‘Taming the Sun’.

Headline figures suggest this is a boom time for solar power. A recent UN report shows that it made a massive contribution to a global increase in investment in renewable energy infrastructure during 2017 that far outstripped growth in fossil-fuel generation in the same period.

However, the big picture could temper solar supporters’ optimism. China alone was responsible for nearly half of new capacity; at the same time, investment declined in the US and Europe.

Solar may finally be at a point where costs are low enough to make it attractive as the world’s fastest-growing power source. However, without sustained effort, Varun Sivaram warns, there is a risk the current level of enthusiasm will rapidly cool.

Countries may be installing cheap panels by the acre, he argues, but they aren’t investing in the innovation that solar will need to make the crucial leap from the 2 per cent of global electricity it’s responsible for today to providing at least a third by the mid-century.

‘Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet’ by Varun Sivaram (MIT Press, £24.95, ISBN 9780262037686) is both an overview of the current state of solar and a manifesto making the case for sustaining current levels of growth through three kinds of innovation – financial, technological and systemic.

Growing photovoltaic capacity by an order of magnitude will need massive amounts of new capital investment and Sivaram looks at how this can be achieved. In parallel, he acknowledges, although installations based on existing silicon technology are likely to continue expanding over the next decade, beyond that point their growth could hit a ceiling that can only be broken through by a combination of ‘dirt-cheap’ generation, new materials and cost-effective storage.

The book also serves as a stark warning that science alone isn’t enough. Solar’s future will require visionary public policy and politics has a part to play. Sivaram laments the way in which the current US administration’s policies threaten to undermine the role the country has traditionally enjoyed as a pioneer in energy innovation.

‘Taming the Sun’ is an even-handed untangling of a situation that can appear a mess of contradictions, with scientists despairing that commercial technology is stagnating while the industry trumpets its progress. Although no one would argue that solar will power the entire planet by itself in the foreseeable future, ‘Taming the Sun’ is a convincing argument for taking steps to make it the centrepiece of a global clean-energy revolution.

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