My first job writing about the energy industry was learning about and covering power generation, so even as I’m now specializing in writing about how energy gets from power plant to light switch, I’ve never stopped thinking about the giant machines that make all this possible in the first place. I mean the ones that keep power plants humming, from thermal units to nuclear, hydro, geothermal, solar and others.
With Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (sometimes known by the acronym LLNL, or Lasers, Lasers, Nukes and Lasers) making its recent announcement of a breakthrough in fusion power generation, I remembered a kind of a half joke an old colleague told me. They said, “Fusion is the power source of the future, and it always will be.”
They told me about previous times in history where scientists jumped the gun and overstated the importance of their research, or the press – often not great at writing about how electricity works – got some crucial details wrong and people ended up disillusioned with fusion power ever maturing to a level where it could actually, safely, reliably and finally make us some electricity we could power our homes, factories and workplaces with.
We’ve known about the theory behind fusion and been researching it for a century. The “holy grail” of fusion has long been the fusion power gain factor, or more simply put, the milestone of creating a sustained fusion reaction that produces more energy than it eats up in the process. Other issues, like cost, managing the release of neutrons and the depreciation of some of the constituent components of the reactor, can be solved further down the road, but this milestone is one of the most important ones, short of hooking a functioning fusion plant to the grid and making electricity.
But therein lies the point of what I want to write today. Fusion power is a technology that could change the world in the kind of utopian, 1950s, Age of the Atom way that frankly the world could use right about now. In many ways, our politics, culture and popular imagination is sorely lacking in any idea of a “future” like the ones our parents and grandparents imagined. It's looking less likely by the day that Elon Musk is getting anyone to Mars, for example.
It’s hard to overstate how much abundant, cheap and carbon-free electricity would come in handy right now, as Europe shivers through a difficult winter of energy scarcity due to a war that may have at least some of its roots in geopolitical issues involving energy; as we produce more carbon dioxide and other planet-frying pollutants than we have at any other point in our history; and as our lives have become more reliant upon uninterrupted flow of electricity than ever before.
As coal power plants retire, nuclear power plants become too expensive to maintain, renewables grow and introduce some degree of volatility to the grid. Natural gas power plants, which have largely stepped up to fill the gap left by large thermal plant retirements over the past couple of decades, also introduce some volatility. People talk a lot about “when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow,” and those are valid concerns. But what about when the price of natural gas spikes, or frigid weather freezes the gas infrastructure as happened in Texas two Februarys ago? Or what about when gas extraction becomes unprofitable for too many companies now that we have used up too much of a finite resource? These are also sources of volatility that could have critical impacts.
Fusion power has the potential, at least, to change so much. One thing that would not change, even assuming we soon see functional fusion power plants, each safely harnessing the power of the sun and pumping out gigawatts of power from a miniature sun that science created and contained, is the need to bring that power to the people who need it.
In my opinion, we can learn a lot about the impact this newest form of making power might have by looking at the oldest form of making power that we have. When I think about a potential fusion-powered future, for some reason I think about the powerful hydropower dams that fuel the massive cities of Brazil and other countries in South America that have diverted some of the planet’s largest rivers to make electricity. This is a marvelous power asset to have once you’ve built it. There are no fuel costs, maintenance is fairly simple, the generation is predictable, and the power is as reliable as the flow of water down a river. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where I’m writing this, we have some of the lowest utility bills in the country.
However, when you have a large, centrally located power generation asset like a hydro dam or a fusion plant, you have to make sure your load center is always connected to that power, or you risk having the kind of massive blackouts that have plagued South America when some disaster or mishap damages the power grid and cuts people off from the power these large assets provide.
I can remember writing stories about the 2009 blackout that hit Brazil and Paraguay, the countries that own and operate the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant. The facility lies on the border between the two countries, and it powers 20% of Brazil and 90% of Paraguay with its 14 GW capacity. The blackout was triggered by heavy rains that swamped transformers and short-circuited the grid, cutting the high-voltage link between the dam and the massive cities of Brazil that are home to tens of millions, including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Vitória and Campo Grande. All of Paraguay was without power, as were 18 of Brazil’s 26 states. The blackout was a big deal politically, casting a shadow over Brazil’s readiness to host the then-upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, and it became a political liability for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was then in his second term.
Blessedly, the blackout was brief, and the 87 million people left without power were restored in a matter of hours or less. It was not, however, the only one of its kind. A transmission line near São Paulo was struck by lightning in 1999, triggering a widespread outage affecting at least 75 million people. At the time, Brazil was struggling to find the money to invest in its own infrastructure, and this unfortunate happenstance revealed the weak point that had resulted. With so few routes for electricity to flow from its large power assets, Brazilian and Paraguayan cities were left in the dark. The powerful Itaipu facility was again cut off from the people who needed it.
Itaipu was the single most powerful generation asset in the world when it was completed in 1984, and it remains one of the most expensive objects built by humans. To build the dam, construction workers had to divert the course of the Paraná River, the seventh largest in the world, around the current site of the dam with a 1.3-mile-long, 300-foot-deep trench. It is an engineering marvel and a wonder of the modern world, but without its transmission link, it is a pile of steel and concrete in a river as far as people are concerned.
In a way, building a big, central plant runs counter to the direction things have been moving in the energy industry for some years. At least in the 20 years since I’ve been writing about electricity, we have been moving more toward decentralization. Consumers would become “prosumers,” and may make their own power in some cases, reversing the flow of power in a way that the people who built the grid would never have dreamed, and in a way that gives engineers elevated blood pressure.
For years I have heard opinion leaders in the industry explain how we thought up the power grid during the Current Wars and how we built it a certain way, only to have the recent trends of microgrids, electric vehicles, virtual power plants and energy storage impose decentralization on the way things have always been done. This is a hard thing for people to digest in an industry where, in some ways, little has changed since the day of Westinghouse, Tesla, Edison, Edwin Houston and Harold Pitney Brown.
How we resolve the question of how we can build a grid that accommodates all the different technologies we want to hook into it is one of the central questions the industry faces, but one idea I have not heard so far is that we should try to reverse the trend and go back to centralized, large power plants located far from load centers. Perhaps this is the soundest idea from an engineering perspective after all? I have no choice but to leave that question to the engineers.
What concerns me most isn’t the safety of fusion power, or its potential to disappoint us yet again by remaining out of reach, but the possibility that we will fail to invest the money and attention that our power grid requires us to if it will be able to keep serving us. Rebuilding the power grid we started building in the early 20th century is certainly an expensive thing, but that cost is nothing compared to the cost of not rebuilding it. The lives we currently live are simply not possible without it.
A powerful hydro dam that captures the potential energy of a raging river or power plant holding an artificial sun in a force field of lasers are both great things to have, but they do us no good whatsoever if we cannot use these assets. Without a power grid that can safely, reliably and resiliently bring that power to us, we may as well never have built these engineering wonders.