Can Fusion Solve the Climate Crisis?
In 2017, I visited the largest tokamak project, ITER, in southern France. It’s a mind-bogglingly complex machine, a multinational effort being assembled from parts produced in many countries. The project was first envisioned in the 1980s; the hope is that it will produce fusion by the mid-2030s.
The Hope for Fusion Energy
Nuclear fusion, which replicates the process that takes place inside the sun, is seen as a possible solution to the world’s energy challenge.
But ITER, like the Livermore project, is only an experiment. Even if ITER works, designing and building a plant that captures the energy from a tokamak and converts it to electricity is most likely very far-off.
And the world needs to sharply cut emissions soon. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above 19th-century levels, the stricter of two limits that came out of the 2015 Paris climate talks, emissions need to reach nearly zero by 2050.
So even if fusion power plants become a reality, it likely would not happen in time to help stave off the near-term worsening effects of climate change. It’s far better, many climate scientists and policymakers say, to focus on currently available renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power to help reach these emissions targets.
When could the power start to flow?
So if fusion isn’t a quick climate fix, could it be a more long-term solution to the world’s energy needs? Perhaps, but cost may be an issue. The National Ignition Facility at Livermore, where the experiment was conducted, was built for $3.5 billion. ITER’s price tag, so far, is more than $20 billion. It’s unclear whether the world could afford any fusion power plants that resulted from these two projects.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of private, smaller efforts at developing fusion power, some using alternative approaches. More than 30 companies are working on the technology, about two-thirds of them in the United States, according to the Fusion Industry Association, a trade group. Together they have received nearly $5 billion in private investment.
Of these efforts, Commonwealth Fusion, a company spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is among the most advanced. As I wrote in 2020, a series of peer-reviewed studies showed that the approach, a much more compact tokamak than ITER that makes use of advances in electromagnet technology, could work.