On Earth Day, April 22, Dr. Varun Sivaram senior advisor to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, discussed trends in energy research, development, and the path to net-zero with ASP CEO Patrick Costello.
To begin the conversation, Costello asked how the Russia-Ukraine War might be accelerating decarbonization trends in the long run, while intensifying demand for oil and gas in the short run to alleviate painful supply shocks. From Dr. Sivaram’s perspective, near term actions to shore up European energy security are still consistent with long term energy transition goals, weaning them off Russian oil and encouraging faster adoption of renewable energy sources.
Costello also raised the impact of COVID-19 on the net zero transition. While hydrocarbon production suffered during the pandemic, wind and solar became self-sustaining energy staples. Still, the ascent of solar energy is in danger of stalling unless supply chains stabilize to improve the availability of input components and reduce price volatility. More problematic, warns Dr. Sivaram, is the lagging innovation in grids, battery storage, and other secondary systems that make renewable energy sources economically viable.
Dr. Sivaram hopes that if the U.S. can master next generation solar technology, grid modernization, clean steel, industrial decarbonization, and hydrogen energy, then it can seize a lucrative leadership position in the world market. Advanced nuclear energy is one such sector where the U.S. is globally competitive with the potential to secure a dominant market share.
Another trend highlighted by Dr. Sivaram is the process of digitalization. Digitalization can assist fossil fuel companies with prospecting for new oil fields as well as supporting solar or wind companies in maintaining their fleets, optimizing storage, and timing delivery to electricity markets. The way digitalization is harnessed will determine if it enhances or impedes decarbonization. Still, the pace of increases in computational resources, machine learning, and AI make it a powerful tool.
Reducing emissions in heavy industry can be more difficult, especially since clean energy is not always economically competitive with fossil fuels in scaled quantities. Accordingly, Dr. Sivaram lauded the commitments of select heavy industry companies to buy from renewable energy suppliers as part of the First Movers Coalition.
To conclude, Dr. Sivaram also praised the efforts of cities in mitigating carbon emissions. While there is a role for all levels of government to play, cities have demonstrated remarkable leadership in passing some of the most impactful policies.