This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.
For more than 50 years, scientists have hoped to use nuclear fusion to produce electricity in great quantities, cheaply, and without environmentally harmful byproducts. Progress has been painfully slow until two weeks ago when Livermore Labs announced that an experiment produced about 50% more energy from a target mass than the energy directed at that mass to get it to fuse. The experiment was very expensive and the amount of net energy tiny so don’t expect a nuclear fusion plant in your neighborhood soon. Nevertheless, the experiment proved that the fusion process, which produces the energy of the sun, can be replicated on earth other than explosively as in a hydrogen (fusion) bomb.
If we have reliable, limitless clean energy at an all-in price less than today’s electricity, concerns about human-caused global warming would (or at least should) disappear. No more coal, oil, natural gas, or even wood burned at power plants so no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electrical generation. No need for nuclear fission plants and the radioactive waste they produce. With enough cheap electricity available (assuming we do get around to building a better electric grid), no reason not to electrify most transportation and thermal processes including space heating, smelting, recycling, fertilizer, and other chemical production. In fact, with enough cheap electricity we can even put excess carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground so no reason not to use some fossil fuels where their energy densities make them more practical than batteries. In fact, we won’t need batteries in the electrical grid since fusion energy can be produced 24×7 and during all seasons. And, of course, no need for fields of intermittently-operating solar panels or huge wind turbines. We wouldn’t even have to nag people to stop using energy to save the planet.
This should all be good news, right? Well, not quite. Suppose you’re in the solar energy or nuclear energy or battery business. Should subsidies continue to flow to you or should we have a Manhattan project to commercialize nuclear fusion given evidence that it can be harnessed? Do we need mandates for electric cars in advance of a grid and power source sufficient to keep them running or should we just let automakers and auto buyers follow the economics as electricity gets cheaper and cheaper? Ditto electric heat pumps. Even if it’s 20 years before significant amounts of the world’s energy are produced through fusion, what today seem like over-ambitious goals for decarbonization by mid-century will easily be met while still allowing the developing world to develop and without cratering existing lifestyles.
The renewable-industrial complex doesn’t like competition (most of us business people don’t). Before 2008 natural gas was considered a good transition fuel for decarbonization since it produces half the GHGs per kilowatt generated than coal and only 75% as much as oil. The renewable-industrial complex wasn’t afraid of natural gas because it was very expensive and America’s known reserves were being depleted. We were about to build import terminals which would make natural gas even more expensive. Then the commercialization of fracking made natural gas much more abundant and much cheaper. In the real world this abundance had wonderful environmental consequences because natural gas replaced coal as America’s electrical generation power fuel of choice without any mandate except comparative cost. After 2008, natural gas was demonized.
Since natural gas was and is a cheaper way to reduce GHG emissions than unsubsidized renewables (although their price is coming down), a relentless propaganda campaign against fracking, the technology which made gas and oil cheaper and more abundant, began and convinced most of the unintelligent intelligentsia that Europe should stop drilling (and buy from Russia) and that the US should discourage drilling and not build needed pipelines even though replacing coal with natural gas is still the fastest way to reduce emissions.
It’s not time to bet all our chips on fusion but we should be upping the ante with more government-sponsored basic research like that which Livermore Labs does and less subsidies elsewhere. Government can help encourage private investment in fusion by not sprinkling grants around to politically favored commercialization schemes. Otherwise productive human energy goes into grant-seeking rather than engineering.
If there is now serious progress towards commercial fusion (it’s my bet there will be), serious opposition will emerge from rival energy vested interests including fossil fuels, nuclear fusion, and the very effective renewable-industrial complex. There are legitimate arguments now that we don’t know how long it will take to commercialize fusion. There will be a cacophony of mostly spurious arguments about dangers that fusion somehow poses as there have been against fracking. We should leave those arguments blowing in the wind and let nuclear fusion create a new age of abundance.