I listened to a report on NPR this morning about the promise of clean, near unlimited energy derived from nuclear fusion. That’s right, the power of the sun. I was surprised by the report. First, I haven’t heard much about fusion in a long time. And, there’s a major, multi-national, multi-billion dollar project in the South of France called ITER, “a large-scale scientific experiment that aims to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion.”
I have never even heard of ITER and had no idea that such large-scale research was underway until this morning. The ITER Fusion Research Collaboration is funded by China, the European Union, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. The report I heard this morning mentioned that it is being funded to the tune of $17 billion and is already over budget and behind schedule.
I am intrigued by the idea. Of course it would be great if we could produce electricity from clean, abundant nuclear fusion. But, my first thought is why don’t we invest this kind of money in energy technologies that are quite so far away from commercial viability, or that are proven already? Or, how about investing $17 billion in energy efficiency?
This was mentioned in the report. A senior US official mentioned his skepticism about this project. His message was something like (I’m paraphrasing): Sure it could work – someday. But, why not invest in solar and wind technology which are much farther along in terms of their commercial viability to offset fossil fuel based energy production? I would add to that list geothermal energy. Why solar and wind is always mentioned – and not geothermal too – when people discuss renewable energy baffles me. But I digress.
Again, I don’t want to sound defeatist and cynical about the future of nuclear fusion but, there’s a running joke amongst the cognescenti about harnessing nuclear fusion and, it goes something like “It’s 30 years away. It will always be 30 years away.” Research into controlled fusion for civilian purposes started in the 1950s and, obviously, continues to this day. That means we have had 60 years to figure this out. In these 60 years, we have trusted our leaders to make good choices about energy policy. I am not sure they have earned this trust.
My take away from all this is:
1.) I think we should be investing big money like this on energy production technologies and efficiencies that are here and now.
2.) The geothermal lobbyists are doing a crappy job. Solar & wind are not the only viable renewables people! We can’t have wind farms everywhere. We can’t have solar everywhere. We can’t put a geothermal power plant anywhere. We need a balanced approach for all three.
3.) Nuclear fusion is probably 30 years away…and God knows how many investment dollars away.