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A Model for Low-Carbon Innovation 

As a 2017 Andrew Carnegie Fellow, I have had the opportunity to dive deeply into the question of how solar became cheap, drawing on new data sets, analyses, and a growing literature.  The fellowship enabled me to conduct extended interviews with approximately 70 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. 

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How Solar Became Cheap will be available from Routledge June 2019


How did solar become inexpensive?  

And why did it take so long?

This research convinced me that the payoff from understanding the reasons for solar’s success is not just in taking full advantage of its potential, but in learning how to support other low-carbon technologies with analogous properties.  They can benefit from solar’s drivers: scientific understanding of a phenomenon,  evolving R&D foci, iterative upscaling, learning by doing, knowledge spillovers, modular scale, policy-independent niche markets, robust policy support, and delayed system integration challenges. <good to have the air capture picture to the right here, same>


However, other technologies would have to progress much faster than PV to be helpful for climate change.  The capstone of this project is a set of nine innovation accelerators—actions that would have sped the development of PV and which could be applied to new low-carbon technologies that fit the solar model.  These accelerators include: 1) continuous R&D, 2) public procurement, 3) trained workforce, 4) codify knowledge, 5) disruptive production, 6) robust markets, 7) knowledge spillovers, 8) global mobility, and 9) political economy.  My perspective is that committed government action in multiple jurisdictions can enhance each of these nine innovation accelerators and stimulate improvement in and adoption of the broad set of technologies we will need to address climate change.

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