Physicist Dr Varun Sivaram on sustainability, his new projects, and more

Meet Dr Varun Sivaram, the millennial who is passionate about championing solar energy. He was on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in 2017, and was named one of the TIME 100 Next most influential people in 2019.

A Rhodes and Truman Scholar, Varun holds a Ph.D. from Oxford University and undergraduate degrees from Stanford University. Making a move from the United States to India, he joined ReNew Power, India’s largest renewable energy company, as Chief Technology Officer. He recently joined the faculty of Columbia University.

Today, sustainability and living a conscious lifestyle are more important than ever. We asked Varun for his thoughts:

ELLE: What is your definition of sustainability? What does it mean to you personally?

VARUN SIVARAM: The aspect of sustainability that I’ve devoted my career to is the fight against climate change. Global emissions of greenhouse gases are unsustainably raising global temperatures, intensifying natural disasters, acidifying the oceans, and much more. To avoid catastrophic consequences such as mass forced migration, deadly toll of heatwaves, drought, and disasters—the global economy must become more sustainable. Much of the problem can be solved by transitioning to clean energy systems that do not emit greenhouse gases.

Dr Varun Sivaram
Talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on the future of solar energy, 2018

ELLE: What would your top three tips for reducing our carbon footprint be?

VS: For India to reduce its emissions, it must accomplish three herculean tasks—all at the same time:

First, India must build renewable energy at a historically unprecedented rate. 100 GW of solar is just the beginning. By midcentury, India may need 30 times the solar and wind power it has today—or even more—to decarbonize its economy.

Second, India will need to connect all this renewable energy to the parts of its economy that don’t currently use electricity. The government should promote the use of clean hydrogen to decarbonize industry, and invest in the infrastructure to charge electric vehicles with wind and solar power.

Third, India must radically improve energy efficiency.

Dr Varun Sivaram
Construction site of a ReNew Power wind farm, 2018

ELLE: What are the projects you’re currently working on that you can share with our readers?

VS: I’ve just joined Columbia University as a Senior Research Scholar at the SIPA Center for Global Energy Policy, and I’ll also be a faculty affiliate at Columbia’s Data Science Institute. I’ve also joined the board of a company developing technology for floating solar power.

Presentation to the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School on the future of solar power, 2018

ELLE: Why did you move to India? How can India reach its goal of generating 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022?

VS: India’s energy transition is the most exciting, challenging, and important one in the world. That’s why I moved from the United States to India to spend the last couple years in the renewable energy industry. I was inspired by the vision of Sumant Sinha, who founded ReNew Power, and asked me to lead research and development as Chief Technology Officer.

India is a ticking climate bomb. The average Indian uses 1/10 the energy of the average American. But as the middle class grows, Indians will, reasonably, want to cool their homes and drive to work.

Visit by ReNew Power executives to the advanced solar photovoltaic technologies laboratory of IMEC, a Belgian research centre, 2019

ELLE: Is there anything new in the pipeline? Can we expect a new book from you anytime soon?

VS: Later this summer, I’ll publish a new book, along with colleagues at Columbia called “Energizing America.” It’s a roadmap for how the United States can launch a national energy innovation mission—sort of like the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program to put a man on the Moon. I plan to work hard on advancing a policy agenda that can reestablish U.S. leadership on energy and climate change.

Dr Varun Sivaram
Book signing for “Taming the Sun” with his wife, Laxmi Parthasarathy, 2018

Photographs: Courtesy of Dr Varun Sivaram 

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