Step into the nuclear future

GE Look Ahead at The Economist
By GE Look ahead Posted October 18, 2015

What if fusion became commercial?

Nuclear fusion, says Stephen Hawking, could “provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming”. The technology’s promises are many, but how would the arrival of commercial fusion affect the design of our energy system?

The first thing to note is that while the fuel (hydrogen) will be free, the plant itself will not. Whichever technology ends up on the market first—centralised like the ITER project or decentralised like the ones Lockheed Martin or General Fusion are pursuing—commercial fusion will be a capital-intensive, low-operational-cost business. In that sense, it resembles a typical renewable energy plant of today.

Fusion, therefore, would produce power constantly, making it a direct competitor to coal, nuclear and, to a lesser extent, gas—the last may still be needed for load-balancing in areas where utility-scale energy storage is not yet largely deployed.

Current trends of increased distributed generation and cost reductions in renewables also suggest that the grid in which the first commercial fusion plant will plug in will be very different from the one we have today. This, in turn, could affect the ability of a particular fusion technology to capture market share. A 500 MW plant of the ITER type, for example, could easily replace a coal or nuclear plant but may find it difficult to expand further in systems that have favoured a distributed model for their power grid. Similarly, decentralised units in the 100 MW range may not necessarily be able to capture all electricity markets at first, in part because operating a fusion plant requires access to a highly skilled labour force.

One segment small fusion units might be able to enter more easily is the production of heat for industrial applications. “There are some interesting possibilities there, especially early on in the adoption cycle, as utilities around the world tend to be highly regulated and risk-averse that they may not even be the first adopters” says Michael Delage, vice-president technology and corporate strategy at General Fusion.

As for renewables, fusion might over time become an alternative to large-scale onshore wind or solar plants as it requires less land surface and can be sited anywhere.

Of course, no one really knows when fusion will become commercial: the most optimistic hope for a first commercial prototype ten years from now; most expect it will take much longer, some doubt it will ever happen.

But there is no conceptual barrier to achieving it: The process is a standard one in our universe, and one that we’ve been able to re-create on Earth—if only briefly and with more energy in than out.

The quest, therefore, is a technological one and strategists are already thinking about which markets they could capture first.

What do you think the birth of the fusion industry will look like?