It’s not the miracle cure many think it is.
- Thinking fusion is a miracle for climate change could make us apathetic about the problem.
- While fusion could be the energy of the future, a new breakthrough does not guarantee that reactors are coming; we need to cut emissions now.
- Nuclear power could replace fossils now, but human ignorance won’t let it. Will the same happen with fusion?
When I heard about the new fusion breakthrough — a fusion process that creates more energy than it takes to produce — I thought I had made a big mistake. I’m about to put solar panels on my house. “Will my panels even be paid off,” I thought to myself, “by the time my city’s electricity comes from a green energy fusion plant?” A few seconds later, I remembered how often giant promises about future technology fall through. Unforeseeable obstacles or an inability to “scale up” the tech is usually why. Indeed, even when such promises are kept, it’s the result of decades of incremental advancements. Working fusion plants, I realized, are still decades away — long after my solar panels will have been paid off and served their purpose.
I looked up what the experts were saying, and that timeline seems right. But then a new worry arose in my mind: What if others don’t realize this? What if others decide not to put up solar panels, like I almost did, because of this fusion breakthrough? What if people stop caring about reducing their carbon footprint because they think fusion will do it for them? The way the media is buzzing about fusion being a green-energy miracle cure, this seems likely. And that is the way this fusion breakthrough could make climate change so much worse.
Don’t get me wrong; there are also worries about whether this experimental result is the precursor to green energy fusion plants at all. As Ben Adler points out (by citing the relevant experts), the reaction only produced more energy than it produced if you only count certain energy usage (by other calculations the reaction only produced 1% of the energy it took to create it). And to produce electricity, plants have to use the heat energy produced by the fusion to create steam and turn turbines — but that process is only 40% efficient. So, for this to work, the fusion process is going to have to produce A LOT more energy than it takes to make it — and it’s not clear that it could.
And then there is the worry that, even if we develop the technology for fully functioning zero-emission fusion power plants that could save the planet, we still won’t build them because the public will misunderstand the science and/or believe stupid conspiracy theories about them. After all, this already happens with solar, wind, and (most notably) nuclear power. Nuclear power is a green energy source that could, right now, supply all our energy needs (or at least replace fossil fuels), if we just bothered to build necessary plants — but we won’t because of paranoia about the evils of nuclear power. Germany, in fact, is not only not building plants; they recently shut off nearly all of their already existing nuclear plants (because its public finds them “dangerous”). The result? They quickly found that solar and wind power wasn’t enough and so they had to fire up a bunch of coal plants to meet their energy needs. The nuclear plants were already built! It cost lots of money to shut them down — and yet, because of public paranoia, they still did. And the result, despite even the desires of those who wanted to shut them down, was horrible for the environment: an abundance of greenhouse gases. Granted, nuclear power is not perfect—but (1) new advances have made modern nuclear plants nearly physically unable to melt down, (2) they can even use the waste of old-style reactors as fuel, and (3) its use is necessary if we want to save the planet.
Let me put the point this way: In the 70s, because it recognized the threat of climate change, ExxonMobil wanted to re-brand itself as an “energy company” rather than just an “oil company” and become the “Bell Labs of energy.” They were going to launch research into global warming and renewable energy, thinking that American innovation was more than capable of tackling the climate crisis. But in the early 80s, when the price of oil dropped, the country shifted politically, and company leadership changed, and Exxon decided instead to preserve its original core business model (oil), bury its research that proved climate change was a threat, and launch a science-denial campaign (which lied about climate change) to allow it to do so. Couldn’t something similar just as easily happen with fusion?
But, again, that is not the worry I am expressing here. My worry is that, even if this experiment is the precursor to working fusion reactors by, say, 2050 (even that might be optimistic), and even if we will then be smart enough to build them with gusto (and not shoot ourselves in the foot with misinformation and conspiracies), it will be too late for fusion technology to undo the damage we have already done. Not only do we need to make drastic reductions in carbon emissions long before 2050 to reach important benchmarks (like keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C by 2100), but by placing our hope in fusion we might reverse the slow progress that we are finally making. Humanity is not yet reducing is carbon output; but at least it is growing at a slower rate. But if we forestall our efforts — if we collectively don’t put up our solar panels (or do any of the other countless things we need to do) — because we think fusion will save us, we could easily increase our output and reach 3 degrees C (or worse) by 2100. We could reach tipping points (like the melting of the ice caps) which we might never recover from, even if (thanks to fusion) we eventually get our emissions down to zero.