And What If It Is?
The press has been abuzz lately about claims that fusion energy will soon be economically viable, and can become the go-to technology to meet a lot of our energy needs. They point to some technological advances, particularly in the materials area, that certainly seem promising.
However, for those of us who have been around for--ahem--awhile, the arguments have a familiar ring. Fusion has appeared to be just around the corner for a long time now. For 30 years, I have been hearing that fusion is just 30 years away. Maybe this time, it's really true. It is probably just as wrong for me to dismiss a claim based on past failures as it is for others to ignore past failures altogether and promise success this time.
More fundamentally, this news has gotten me to thinking about recent news items touting advances in other energy technologies, as well, and what it means for our energy planning. The truth is that we are seeing advances, or the potential for advances, on many fronts. Energy storage is getting cheaper, making renewables potentially more viable sometime in the future. We are developing advanced nuclear power plant designs that will make nuclear power safer and more economical in the future.
I could go on. All of these claims are, at the moment, promises about concepts that are still in their early phases of development. And in many of these cases, even a successful demonstration (such as achieving "break even" power production from fusion) is only one step in a long road to reliable, long-term operation.
It all reminds me, once again, of Admiral Rickover's "paper reactors." He noted that advanced concepts that are still on the drawing board are always reported to be fully developed, simple, cheap, flexible, etc. However, once we start to build them, we run into problems, and end up with cost overruns and schedule delays while we solve all the problems we didn't think we had. I know I've covered Rickover's statement before, and I will probably come back to it again one of these days, but it seems to me that it's one of the most profound statements that I've ever heard about advanced technologies and large-scale projects--that is, that there are a lot of stumbling blocks between the idea and the reality.
Surely, we will make progress on many of the technologies we are developing. Despite past failures, maybe fusion will succeed spectacularly this time around and change the face of our energy supply. Or maybe not this time, but another few decades down the road. Maybe energy storage will get cheaper and make wind and solar energy more suitable for baseload. Or maybe not this time. Maybe the small modular reactors and other advanced fission reactor designs will indeed prove to be both safer and cheaper. Or maybe not this time. Maybe we will discover a reliable and cost-effective way to remove and sequester emissions from fossil-fired power plants. Or maybe not this time.
Most likely, we will solve one problem, but discover other roadblocks. For example, new materials may cause different kinds of problems in their mining, manufacture and use. With luck, some of these areas will make progress, but others will stall, and it is impossible to determine today which will be the one that will edge ahead.
The real point is, what should we do in light of this uncertainty? We need more energy in many parts of the world and we need it today. Heck, we need it yesterday. We need to replace aging facilities. We need to replace polluting facilities. There are some people who think that we should just wait for the perfect technology that is just around the corner. But Rickover's paper reactors should make us realize that the perfect solution is not really imminent, and will not be perfect. It will most likely take longer to develop and implement new technologies than we think it will, and we will find that the new technologies have some drawbacks we didn't anticipate.
If that sounds full of despair, I don't intend it to be. My point is that we have near-term needs that can't afford to wait. They can be met only with present-day technologies. A smart development program will take the best technologies that we have today to meet increased demands and to replace older technologies.
Most likely, some of the technologies that are now under development will be available in the future, but we can't afford to wait. And, what the best technology will be 30 years down the road...well, let's check in sometime in 2045 and see what's happened.