When it comes to dealing with global issues like climate change or peak fossil fuels, I’d argue we’ll need to focus technology we already have, or what can realistically be developed in the near future. Relying on more fantastical high tech solutions, such as fusion power, LFTR’s, space solar power or biofuels produced by synthetic biology, is risky because we simply cannot predict when these technologies will become available, if ever! There’s no harm in continuing research into them, but life is about priorities and clearly arguing that we should go slow on renewables, in the forlorn hope of something new emerging would be a risky strategy.
And we have yet more evidence now as to why waiting for a technological holy grail to be found is a bad idea. The latest projections from EuroFusion are that ITER won’t complete its construction until the 2030’s and the next step beyond that, DEMO, won’t be up and running until the 2050’s, with 2054 as an implied likely start up date for DEMO. And this assumes no further delays in ITER. However, with the related JET program now likely to implode due to brexit (already I’ve heard stories of key staff leaving this project due to concerns about impending changes to immigration, they worry they won’t be able to bring over family members, etc.) even this schedule might now slip.
For those unfamiliar with the roadmap to fusion power (for some reason the fast track to fusion page on the ITER website seems to have been deleted!), ITER is essentially a proof of concept device that will generate overunity fusion pulses (that is more energy out than in) in the Megawatt range for periods of up to 1,000 seconds. ITER will also function as a sort sandbox for testing out various theories related to fusion power to help with the design of the reactors to follow. A massive step forward from what current technology can achieve, but a long way from a working commercial fusion power plant. This is why ITER will work concurrently with IFMIF facility in Japan, which will test out materials to ensure they can survive the enormous neutron fluxes that a fusion reactor will need to survive.Once the IFMIF and ITER experiments are completed, its here that DEMO comes it. As the name implies it will be a demonstration plant of a working fusion powerplant. Of course as it will be a first generation plant, it likely won’t be commercially viable, nor capable of operating with anything like the sort of capacity factor an existing nuclear plant can sustain. In many respects it will merely serve as a design tool for PROTO, the first commercial prototype nuclear reactor.
PROTO should appear about a decade after DEMO (so about 2064 on the current timeline) although this assumes its developed concurrently with DEMO, rather than its design waiting until afterwards (which would push the date back about another decade). This should be the equivalent of the Shippingport reactor for fusion and there might end up being more than one competing design.
Roll out of fusion power stations worldwide should then follow. However, it will take some time to build this network of reactors. Even if we assume a construction rate of 30 GW’s per year (after a decade or two to ramp up to that production level), it will still take several decades for nuclear fusion to have any significant impact (i.e. more than 5% on energy supplies).
In short, much as I predicted some time ago, we are unlikely to see Fusion based energy making any significant contribution until the latter half of this century, or perhaps even the early 22nd century. This has a number of profound implications.
Firstly, as far as almost everyone reading this is concerned, you will probably be dead before fusion power becomes available in any significant quantity. And as we have only a decade or two window in which to achieve major cuts in carbon emissions, its clear neither nuclear fusion, nor the proposed generation IV nuclear fission reactors will be ready within this time frame, making them largely irrelevant to the debate.
Its worth remembering that we don’t need to switch to a 100% renewable world. Strictly speaking we’d only need to cut emissions by 80%. Its just a matter of cutting out the carbon emissions (e.g. carbon capture and storage) or perhaps only using fossil fuels sparingly. So for example, rather than completely trying to backup a grid with energy storage to ride out the worst case scenario for a winter cold snap with no wind (which is certainly possible with existing technology), you use CHP plants to provide heating and back up the grid. Even if these plants ran on Natural gas (rather than biogas or a stockpile of hydrogen built up over the summer) and even with no CCS, with good energy conservation and cut backs in other areas, you’d still fall well within the 80% window of cuts the IPCC is calling for.
However, by the 2070’s, even the most optimistic projections say oil and gas supplies will have peaked and be well into terminal decline (the less optimistic voices say all oil and gas, conventional and unconventional will peak between the 2020’s and 2040’s). Even coal supplies will have peaked and its likely Uranium supplies might also have peaked as well. And keep in mind a business as usual approach (i.e. an expansion of fossil fuel consumption or nuclear energy) brings forward the date of these events (to closer to the 2030’s and 40’s). So its likely that all non-renewable energy sources will be tapped out before fusion power is available.
In short, if the critics of renewable energy are correct, that a 100% renewable world is impossible, then civilisation as we know it is probably not going to survive in its current form beyond the middle of this century. So either renewables and energy storage can be made to work, or we’re going to have to face some tough questions and live with our means in terms of what sort of energy we can get out of renewables. Its a case of renewables or bust.
Does this mean fusion research is a waste of time? We’ll again, I’d argue no, as a long term project it certainly is still a worthy goal. One of the problem’s with our society is our inability to think long term. Fusion power is one such long term goal. Frankly if were going to spend hundreds of billions a year on defence, or on leaving the EU, or building and maintaining a border wall with Mexico, you can spare a few billion for Fusion research. Nobody is that broke or hard up.
But this is essentially going to be a gift from our generation to one in the distant future. A sort of sorry we destroyed the environment, but…. present to people whose grand parents are only now being born.