Fusion breakthrough spurs visions of energy future


We live in an energy-scarce world.

The mid-December announcement of a hydrogen fusion breakthrough at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory invites us to speculate what an energy-abundant world would look like.

Energy today is not as scarce as it was in my childhood in the late 1970s, when failing to turn out the lights when leaving a room was viewed as profligacy equal to burning $20 dollar bills to stay warm in the winter. Still, we all know the price of a gallon of gasoline every week, and we all pay more than we would like to our electricity company every month.

READ MORE: Why you need to ignore year-end financial predictions for 2023

What if energy in the future was no longer scarce and became nearly free? Or, to use a phrase from the 1954 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, what if electricity became “too cheap to meter?” Can we imagine that world?

The breakthrough in December

The fusion breakthrough, as I understand it from news reports, is that lasers blasted an eraser-size bit of hydrogen to cause a fusion of hydrogen atoms, creating helium and a measurable gain in energy. In the experiment, 2 megajoules of energy from lasers unleashed 3 megajoules, a net gain of 1 megajoule — known as “ignition.” Net positive energy from the process had never been achieved before Dec. 5.

Net energy from hydrogen fusion is something long predicted and long desired for multiple reasons:

  • It doesn’t generate harmful emissions.
  • One gram of hydrogen fusion fuel could produce as much energy as 12 metric tons of coal.
  • The supply of hydrogen on Earth is virtually unlimited.

The caveat to our excitement in 2022 is that it took about 300 megajoules to power the lasers. Knowledgeable observers say we’re looking at a decade or more before the process becomes efficient enough to make hydrogen fusion commercially viable. Still, it prompts techo-optimism: What if this process meant there were no more energy limits? What would change?

Disparate geographic impacts

Thanks to a robust oil and gas sector plus major investments in wind and solar, Texas generates more electricity than any other state in the nation. Texas generates essentially double the net electricity of the next highest states, Florida and California, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Also, net retail sales of electricity in Texas are 75 and 80 percent higher than in Florida and California. And the average retail price of electricity is about 86 percent of the cost in Florida and 47 percent of the cost in California.

All of this adds up to an ongoing competitive economic advantage for the Lone Star State. In a hydrogen fusion world, however, Texas’ advantage disappears.

On a geopolitical scale, we can imagine resource-limited but technologically advanced countries such as Japan or Denmark benefiting from energy that’s too cheap to meter. Or maybe the standard of living in relatively poor island nations suffering from high-cost energy suddenly leaps forward. Certainly, oil and gas superpowers like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia would take a relative step backward in economic power.

The biggest reordering from energy abundance would not be negative, however, but rather a massive positive step forward for humankind.

The broadband analogy

Functions like essentially free web browsing, Facetime and other video calls on a phone are a science fiction development accomplished within the last 20 years, made possible by the data spectrum becoming incredibly affordable. While we pay a monthly fee for internet access, high-speed broadband became essentially “too cheap to meter,” which allowed for massive advances in the convenience and availability of video technology.

By analogy, what would be the equivalent life-improving development that would go from science fiction to banal reality within my or my children’s lifespan as a result of abundant and inexpensive energy?

Water scarcity — a growing problem in many areas of the world — is in large part due to energy scarcity. We have the technology to run desalination plants, and most of the planet is covered in salt water. The main limit to making seawater potable is the high cost of energy used in desalination. Make energy too cheap to meter, and suddenly we can achieve water abundance too. That would change almost everything about our ability to live in water-scarce places in the world. Not only South Texas and the dry U.S. Southwest, but also huge swathes of Australia, the Middle East and North Africa would become habitable if energy is cheap and water can be made plentiful. Some of our greatest fears regarding climate change become solvable.

Practically all industrial processes become much cheaper. Cheap energy would likely lead to a massive reduction in inflation, with across-the-board lowered costs of practically everything we make. It has the potential to curb inflation as much as or more than globalization and the internet did over the past 30 years. Our standard of living would likely skyrocket.

Here’s something else to speculate about: Would we build cities and live in different ways if energy was nearly free? For example, could you do vertical farming within urban areas on tiny acreage — a “farmscraper” in the middle of a dense city, if you will? Intensive energy is needed to replicate the free sunlight used for traditional ground-based horizontal agriculture. But if energy were otherwise nearly free, vertical lamps suddenly make this model viable.

With crops growing at industrial scale in high-rises near where consumers live, you could increase freshness and reduce transportation costs.

Maybe we could even get a good-tasting tomato? Nah, that’s probably going too far into science fiction.

If you spend a little time reading about “energy superabundance,” you will encounter some really cool ideas about how transportation, cities, agriculture, construction and manufacturing look totally different in a “energy too cheap to meter” world.

Energy abundance and climate change

Climate worriers should react to the fusion energy breakthrough with optimism that this could slow warming effects of carbon emissions, as hydrogen fusion emits no carbon and could substitute for fossil fuels.

Not only that, but carbon capture from the air is a hoped-for tool to fight climate change. Unfortunately, carbon capture processes use too much energy on a large scale to make economic sense. Currently, the energy needed to do the capturing creates as many emissions as it captures. If massive energy were generated cheaply and cleanly through hydrogen fusion, however, carbon capture possibly becomes a viable tool not merely to slow but to reverse climate change.

This is admittedly a lot of speculation, and again, every serious description of the fusion breakthrough last week emphasized that commercial applications are a decade or more in the future.

One thing we can predict based on this basic scientific breakthrough is that a green light has been turned on for private venture money to enter the race to energy abundance.

Lasers, fusion and a poorly understood but transformative technology? Nothing could be more enticing to speculators. With the dreams of crypto dying, I will be happy to see hydrogen fusion take its place in our imagination and our intensive investment. Unlike crypto, I think commercial deployment of this technology actually would change everything for the better.

Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, author of “The Financial Rules for New College Graduates” and host of the podcast “No Hill for a Climber.”


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