Jan 23 • 30M

Me, talking about fusion and clean energy revolutions

Chatting with a podcast called The Big Story.

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David Roberts
Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In this episode, as a guest on Canadian daily news podcast The Big Story, I discuss a momentous fusion breakthrough, just how close we actually are to a future of unlimited clean energy (hint: not very), and where we should be focusing instead.

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David Roberts

A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the Canadian daily news podcast The Big Story, chatting with host Jordan Heath-Rawlings about the big fusion news from December, the public’s hunger for energy breakthroughs, and the energy revolution that’s going on before our very eyes while we get lost in sci-fi fantasies.

It was fun! The team was kind enough to allow me to share it as an episode of Volts, so please enjoy, and go ahead and subscribe to The Big Story wherever you get your podcasts.

Frequency Podcast Network

You're listening to a Frequency podcast network production in association with City News.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

If you've listened to this show for any length of time, you will know that we think scientific breakthroughs are cool, especially when they show us a path to a theoretically unlimited source of clean energy. When you look at the trouble we're in, it's easy to understand why anyone could get caught up in that height.

Media soundbite

The power that powers the sun, an abundant source of clean energy to help the planet kick its carbon addiction.

This is one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century.

It's a star in a box. Putting it in a box on Earth and tapping that energy that goes forever. It's what Iron Man has in his chest.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Now, here is where I get to be a buzzkill. When a scientific breakthrough hits the mainstream media, it's important to look immediately to the people who have covered the sector before that breakthrough. They are the ones who can separate hype from hope. And while, as I said, the fusion breakthrough in December was legitimately cool, ask some of the people who have been covering clean energy and the climate crisis and they'll tell you a story of other technologies.

The ones that we have right now, the ones that actually are changing the game we are currently playing and those people wonder why can't we focus on these things right now instead of waiting for a miracle? I'm Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is "The Big Story". David Roberts runs a newsletter and a podcast called Volts, which discusses clean energy and politics. You can find it at volts.wtf. That is an interesting suffix for your website.

David Roberts

Yes. I didn't even know it existed until I was trying to register a domain, and then I made a rather impulsive purchase.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Well, at least it's memorable. Now, before we get into what's going to happen in clean energy this year, which I'm really intrigued by, can you maybe quickly take us back to December? And I'm sure many people listening will remember a big headline and discussion about fusion. What was that news?

David Roberts

Sure. The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been experimenting with fusion for years and years now, and they just achieved a goal that they have been pursuing for a long time, which is they got more energy out of a fusion reaction than was put into it. And this is a big milestone in fusion research.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Why is that milestone, theoretically at least, so important?

David Roberts

Well, you have to untangle a few things. In the big picture, the hope is that eventually you can master fusion to the point that it can create clean energy because the fuels required to run fusion are cheap and abundant, it's carbon free. Theoretically, fusion power plants would have a very small footprint. So, from the energy perspective it's sort of this tantalizing utopian energy source. In the actual fusion world, the Lawrence Livermore Lab is not even in the business of researching fusion for energy production. They're actually more geared toward weapons research. There are other fusion companies pursuing energy production, but they use actually a fundamentally different technology, a fundamentally different form of fusion which has not reached this threshold, this breakthrough.

But there's lots of companies pursuing fusion and depending on how seriously you take their hype, maybe they'll be producing actual power plants that produce actual energy in a decade. Some of them are saying earlier than that, but they're also trying to raise money so one doesn't know how seriously to take them. But one thing to keep in mind is the Lawrence Livermore Facility costs about a billion dollars to create this small amount of energy it created. And the alternative forms of fusion claim that they will be able to create power plants for merely hundreds of millions of dollars. So, all of this is speculative and distant, let's say.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Well yeah, I mean we used theoretically a lot there, there's a lot of caveats I noticed that you kind of threw into your description of what could happen. But nevertheless, we begin the conversation here because I want you to tell me just a bit about how this went over in the mainstream news cycle because as I mentioned, this was a big deal in early December, right?

David Roberts

Well, there's a vision that has a hold of people's imagination of abundant clean energy produced in small power plants. And if you have sort of...

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Like Sim City

David Roberts

Like Sim City. And if you have limitless energy with barely any fuel and no waste, there's all sorts of things you can think of you could do with limitless energy. You could for instance, desalinate water at scale with something which costs a lot of money and energy now. You could grow endless food. There's all kinds of stuff you can do if you have surplus abundant energy which fills people's heads with these sort of utopian futuristic visions.

And that vision I think, ends up causing people to sort of clutch to any announcement like this and say oh it's it's closer, it's going to happen, you know. But like fusion, fusion research has been sort of going through Hype cycles ever since 1950, mainly because of this Sci-Fi vision in people's heads. But you know, it just needs to be said over and over again. We are still very very far from that utopian vision of energy production. And, I would just like to remind everyone that we're in a climate crisis and we do not have decades to wait on an abundant source of clean energy.

So, even if the most sort of aggressive forecast, even if everything went very well, this is going to start generating energy well after the point that we need to have largely decarbonized already. So, there's sort of two categories people can think about. There's the near term decarbonization imperative and this is not particularly relevant to that. And then there's like the long term, post 2100 futuristic, "mankind expands to fill the solar system", all this kind of whatever your Sci-Fi stuff. And this is relevant to that, but we need to keep those two separate.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

So that's why I came to you, because you've been writing about clean energy and politics for years now, as you've said, more than a decade, and you wrote a Twitter thread about this discovery that kind of opened my eyes a bit. So I'm just going to read out the first tweet to you and get you to explain your thinking to our audience. "It drives me crazy that people are still pining away for some magic blue light arc reactor Sci-Fi energy source to save us when solar and wind are out there doing it as we speak". What are you getting at?

David Roberts

Yeah, you know there's a lot here, but where I'd start is we have wind and solar right now. We have renewable energy. And when I say renewable energy, I mean wind and solar and all the sort of attendant technologies that enable them making huge progress right now. But it's difficult progress and it's a big political fight. You're fighting at the national level, you're fighting at the community level. There's a lot of community resistance to renewable energy now. So it's just a struggle and a slog to transform the energy system around renewable energy. And I think a lot of people imagine, or maybe wish that if you had this Sci-Fi energy that could produce all the energy you want with hardly any input and no problems, you could in effect skip the politics of transforming the energy system.

You could do it without politics. I think there's a real, especially among sort of, let's say tech nerds, and I say that with love. I love tech nerds. I think there's a real sort of anti politics at work here. This idea that the sort of grubby work of negotiation and compromise and half steps forward, it's all very frustrating, it's very ambiguous. I think they just are naturally sort of repelled by it and they sort of imagine ways around it, imagine ways you could improve humanities a lot without politics. And this sort of tendency comes up over and over again in a lot of different areas. It expresses itself in a lot of different ways.

But I think this is a classic case, this idea that fusion could, in a sense, short circuit all these politics or skip all these politics and just sort of transform everything without anybody being upset, without anybody fighting about it. And that's just, I just push back against that again and again wherever I see it. Even if we created this magic energy source, even if fusion somehow miraculously developed enough to not just create a positive amount of energy, but to create a lot positive amount of energy at a cost that's even remotely competitive, with current energy sources. To take that and transform the world energy system with it would still require a lot of fighting and a lot of politics and a lot of slog.

There is no way around politics. You've got to go through it. And that's why I think, despite the sort of spectacular success of wind and solar in the past decade, people still sort of resist it and want to poopoo it because it's just hard. It's just hard. And it feels like it's going to require too much work. You have to transform too many things. You have to transform the grid. You have to develop all these storage technologies to complement it. It requires a sort of wholesale rethinking of the energy grid. And that's just going to disturb a lot of incumbents.

It's going to be a lot of change. And people just have a very, very instinctive, brainstem level aversion to change, basically, or to transformation. And that's what I think is expressing itself here.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Wind and solar have seen tremendous success over the past decade. How has our reliance on wind and solar been growing? What does that tremendous success look like? Like, just in general, you know, how far have we come with these since, I don't know, 2010?

David Roberts

Sure, there's a lot of different ways to look at it. If you're just looking at the technologies themselves, they have plunged in cost. If you look at these graphs of the cost of wind and onshore solar, that's just a steep downhill for decades now. And now we are at the point that wind and solar are creating are the cheapest forms of electricity. The electricity they generate is the cheapest electricity in the world. And that's with or without subsidies. I don't think this has fully sunk into people's heads yet. It is the cheapest way to produce energy.

They're still early in their deployment and spread. So it's only like, I think solar is like 2% of US energy. It's more elsewhere. I think if you live in Denmark, I think they're getting close to 50 plus percent wind and solar there in that country. So they still early in their march to take over the electricity system. But in terms of cost, they're just dirt cheap now. So that's why, you know people wonder, why do you want to transform the energy system around sources that come and go with the weather, right? The idea is they're not reliable, you can't turn them on and off at will, they come and go with the weather.

Why would you want to use that? The reason you would want to use that is because it's dirt cheap. So even with all the sort of balancing technologies you need, and even with all the changes you need in the grid to accommodate that variability, it's still way cheaper than the alternative. So we now have, and this is totally different than 2010 when we used to discuss decarbonisation in 2010, as I was, it was all Sci-Fi, I mean it was all speculative. Wind and solar were ridiculously expensive, and the technologies that would enable the grid to accommodate more wind and solar were nascent.

And so, the whole thing was sort of batting back and forth speculative possibilities. But now, we have a clear trajectory toward decarbonizing grids. We know how to do it now, and we have the technology that is cheap enough to do it now. People say, well, you can't get to 100% clean energy just using renewables. And that's true. To get from say, 85, 90 percent to a 100 percent is tricky from our current perspective. We don't know quite yet how we're going to do that, but as I constantly tell people, we're not even close to 85 or 90 percent yet, so we've got a lot of runway , and we know how to get to that level.

And by the time we get to 85, 90 percent, tech development will have been preceding a pace , and we'll probably have a much better idea by then how to get to 100. So, there's been this revolution in clean energy that's been happening right in front of our eyes. And it's always strange to me that people want to have this weird urge to resist it or to poo poo it or to find flaws in it, you know what I mean?

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Because it's not magic.

David Roberts

I guess that's it. And I think also it comes back to the politics. Today's grid is built for big centralized, dispatchable energy sources, because that's mainly what we had for most of the history of electricity. So, the grid today is still, and not only the grid physically is built for that, our rules and our regulations and our laws and our practices and utility practices and all this stuff have that hangover, are still built around sort of hub and spoke big power plants sending power out to sort of dumb consumers. To change that system, you have to make the grid much more sophisticated.

You have to accommodate the fact that end users are now creating, generating energy on their own. They can generate energy on their own, they can store energy on their own, they can trade it with one another without ever dealing with that central source. We just need a much smarter grid. You need much more grid, right? Because if you're reliant on the weather and sun. You have to build the power plants where the sun and wind are, which are not necessarily where people are. So, you got to build a lot more long-distance transmission. You need a lot of transformative.

You need to transform the grid along with spreading wind and solar. And that is hard, and it's a fight, and it's kind of a drag. Like anything in politics, it's a slog. And I think that's one reason people sort of resist the good news that's happening, unfolding all around us.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

Has the politics been getting easier though? You just kind of walked us through this massive amount of progress. I would hope at least that as the price plummets and as it continues to be more reliable again, I'm not expecting the magic solution, I'm not expecting the politics to go away. But theoretically this transition gets easier as momentum builds, right?

David Roberts

Well, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Wind and solar are on what are called learning curves, which means every time you double the amount deployed, costs fall by a very predictable percentage. And that sort of ratio has held steady for decades now. So, it's pretty reliable and predictable. Which means if we continue doubling deployment to the point we need to completely decarbonize grids, it's going to get super cheap. Not only cheap like it is today, but like super dirt cheap, trivially cheap. So, there might be magic, right? There might be some magic on the horizon.

People have been underestimating the fall in costs of renewable energy at every stage for decades now. If you look at the sort of official forecasts from the International Energy Agency or the US EIA, all these modeling bodies, they keep predicting over and over again that the costs are going to level out, plateau, right? They're going to stop falling, and they just don't stop falling. They just haven't stopped falling.

Are they like the people that kept predicting there would be a limit to what we could put on a computer chip and that laptops would never get... Like all this stuff. This is the same science, right?

Yes, exactly. Very confidently predicting that we couldn't do those things, right? I mean, it was not that long ago that people were very confidently saying a grid cannot accommodate more than three or four or 5% variable renewables before it starts falling apart and becoming unreliable. And we just shot right past that, right? Every supposed limit of renewable energy that people have been confidently pontificating about for the last two decades, we've shot right past those. It's defied all those. So, that's going to continue. And as it gets cheaper and cheaper, it gets easier and easier in some ways just because people like cheap business, people like cheap, like investors are going to go invest in the cheap thing, whatever the sort of team sports people have around different energy sources are irrelevant to big money.

Big money just goes where the cheap stuff is, right? And it's going to follow renewable energy. That's true. But on the other hand, once we start building these out in real bulk, once we start getting from like 5% to 50%, you're going to need a lot of wind and solar build out and that happens on land and people live on land. And so, these fights about building stuff, and the US sort of famously has difficulty building big stuff these days because we have this thicket of rules. We have this sort of absurd degree of community. Communities are just able to stop things in their tracks, use laws that were originally designed for environmental protection to slow things down. It's really getting even more into the sort of yard by yard fight of politics.

You have to overcome community resistance to get to the really high numbers. So in a sense, that politics is only starting. It's only going to get harder and harder. So, how those two things interact is anybody's guess. But I will say that the momentum of renewable energy and its attendant sort of balancing technologies, the storage, throw in some geothermal, whatever, throw in some thermal storage and the technologies that make it work have developed a momentum at this point that is effectively unstoppable. Like we are going to transform the grid around renewable energy on some time horizon.

It's just as always climate change looms in the background, and we just do not have time to mess about. And this is another thing that drives me crazy about fusion. They're like, "oh, in a couple of decades we'll have limitless energy". I was like, we just don't have time. We do not have time to wait a couple of decades. In a couple of decades we're going to be living... In a couple of decades, we're going to be suffering under climate change in a much more visceral way than we are today. Climate change is going to be to the point that its tipping points are going to be looming closer and closer.

We just don't have time to waste. We have to start, we need to decarbonize the US grid by 2030. That's the sort of target we've laid out in Paris. And if you ask me, I mean, I'll bet any amount of money, there is not going to be a commercially viable fusion reactor generating electricity by 2030. I will bet anybody any amount of money about that.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

So last question then. What is the next big breakthrough? And, I don't necessarily mean like magic bullet like, oh, we did this fusion reaction, but where's the next big milestone, or where's the next big thing that you're looking for that will kind of tell you something is shifted?

David Roberts

Well, unfortunately for those of us in media, the real development of the energy system is almost always incremental, right? That's how it's always been. It's probably how it's always going to be. There are very few legitimate, sort of like, turning points or markers that you can celebrate. So, wind and solar is just going to continue getting cheaper and cheaper. What I think where we need to look for exciting tech developments are in these balancing technologies, right? If the core, if the bulk of your energy is wind and solar, they are variable, they come and go with the weather, so you need balancing technologies.

So, that's storage. I think there's a ton of work going on in storage right now. I expect some big things out of the storage community soon. And another place to look, I think, for possible breakthrough is geothermal technology. So, right now there's such a thing as geothermal electricity where you just sort of find places where there's volcanic activity underground and you stick a tube down there and get hot steam out. But, currently under development are all sorts of ways where you can dig down and kind of fracture the rock and in a sense create your own source of heat down there, which you could do anywhere, right?

You can only find volcanic activity in some places, but if you can dig deep enough you can find heat anywhere. And there's a lot of work underway about deep geothermal. I mean, people are down there drilling now with lasers and sound waves and there's all sorts of crazy Sci-Fi stuff going on in geothermal right now, and I would expect some big announcements out of that. And geothermal is a) renewable and b) always on, right? It's not variable, it doesn't come and go with the weather. So, it's a great complement to renewables in a sense. It is the same complement to renewables that is currently the role that is currently being played by natural gas, right?

We got to get rid of the natural gas. We got to replace that with something. And geothermal, I think, is kind of a dark horse candidate for big breakthroughs. That will be awesome, and then I think there will be amazing breakthroughs on the demand side. People constantly overlook the demand side. When you think about how to balance out renewable energy technologies, people are always looking at different energy sources. But there are tons of ways to be more sophisticated about when and where we consume energy. So, we can shift demand to times when there is more renewable energy on the grid - by storing it, by sharing it, by moving it around.

Just think about your humble sort of home water heater, right? You don't care when the water is heated as long as it's hot when you need it, right? So, you can shift the time you heat the water and the water heater to match times of abundant renewable energy. And you can do the same with every appliance with EVs, this sort of using electric vehicles as a kind of distributed storage technology that helps the grid, that's just nascent right now. That's just in its early stages. So, you're going to see a ton of interesting developments in sort of digitized smart demand management.

And all these things are going to be incremental. They're all going to come together in unpredictable ways. But I would just say, people are saying fusion is like exciting science in a way that renewable energy isn't, and I just don't get that. Right now, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people out there in labs doing demonstration projects, working on various problems around renewable energy, and it's just never been a more interesting time to follow technology. I just have faith that, like, there are more people than ever working on this stuff. And the more brain power we throw at it, the faster developments are going to be.

So, it's just going to be an absolutely fascinating decade to live through in the energy world, fusion entirely aside. Just pay attention to sort of like thermal storage, it's super interesting. That's nascent. Demand management is nascent in a sense. All storage technology is just at the start. Geothermal is nascent. There are going to be amazing developments in all these areas and they're going to interact in sort of ways and have emergent effects that are unpredictable now. It's just fascinating. If you're fascinated by science and technology development, you don't need fusion Sci-Fi stuff. There's stuff going on all around you right now, just like tune in.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

David, thank you so much for this. It's fascinating.

David Roberts

Thank you, Jordan.

Jordan Heath-Rawlings

David Roberts is the author and host of Volts, which you can find at volts.wtf. That was "The Big Story". For more you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. I know, I usually talk about the podcast in this space, but since they will never ever let me do an episode about this, I just have to say: Don't sleep on the Detroit Lions. That's all. You can talk to us if you want to, especially about the lions, by finding us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, by emailing us hello@thebigstorypodcast.ca, and of course, by calling us. Leave us a voicemail: 416-935-5935. It's old-fashioned, but it's nice to hear from you.

The Big Story is available in every podcast player, as you know by now. You can hear us ad-free in Apple if you want to subscribe to "The Big Story Plus". And you can get us for free five days a week on your smart speaker by asking it to play "The Big Story" podcast. Thanks for listening. I'm Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We'll talk tomorrow.