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Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences pres.

NERS Colloquium: How Solar Energy Became Cheap: A Model for Low-Carbon Innovation

Speaker: Professor Gregory F. Nemet, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Professor Gregory F. Nemet Professor Gregory F. Nemet
Professor Gregory F. Nemet
Solar energy’s path to widespread adoption provides a successful model that can be applied to other technologies we will need to address climate change.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) has become a substantial global industry—a truly disruptive technology that has generated trade disputes among superpowers, threatened the solvency of large energy companies, and prompted serious reconsideration of electric utility regulation rooted in the 1930s. But,

How did solar become inexpensive? And why did it take so long?
As a 2017 Andrew Carnegie Fellow I had the opportunity to dive deeply into these questions, drawing on new data sets, analyses, and interviewing 75 individuals in 18 countries. The concept of National Innovation Systems provides a theoretical structure for this assessment and helps explain that PV’s success has been the result of distinct contributions mainly by the US, Japan, Germany, Australia, and China—in that sequence. Flows of knowledge from one country to another—often embodied in equipment, and also as tacit knowledge in the heads of internationally mobile individuals—have been central to solar’s progress. One payoff from understanding the reasons for solar’s success is that it can serve as a model for other low-carbon technologies. I focus on direct air carbon capture and small nuclear reactors. However other technologies would have to progress much faster than PV to be helpful for climate change. Possible approaches for accelerating innovation include: dynamic R&D foci, codification of knowledge, public procurement, robust markets, enhancing knowledge mobility, and addressing political economy considerations.

Speaker: Professor Gregory F. Nemet, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Gregory Nemet is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the La Follette School of Public Affairs. He teaches courses in policy analysis, energy systems, and international environmental policy. Nemet's research focuses on understanding the process of technological change and the ways in which public policy can affect it. He received his doctorate in energy and resources from the University of California, Berkeley. His A.B. is in geography and economics from Dartmouth College. He received an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017 and used it to write a book on how solar PV provides lessons for the development of other low-carbon technologies: “How Solar Energy Became Cheap: A Model for Low-Carbon Innovation” (Routledge 2019). He was awarded the inaugural World Citizen Prize in Environmental Performance by APPAM in 2019. He is currently a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 6th Assessment Report.
Professor Gregory F. Nemet Professor Gregory F. Nemet
Professor Gregory F. Nemet
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