December 31 2022
December 31 2022
In mid-December, the Department of Energy announced what has been called a “major breakthrough” for fusion energy at the National Ignition Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), where massive lasers are used to initiate nuclear fusion. The New York Times describes the experiment in which, after decades of effort, a brief fusion reaction was triggered that produced more energy than was delivered by the lasers. This is a remarkable scientific achievement, on par with some of the greatest scientific advances in recent memory. A friend of mine who worked at LLNL reminded me that at several points in the last few decades it appeared this outcome would never be realized.
This achievement has some analysts tantalized by the possibilities. The Washington Post notes that fusion reactions leave almost no toxic byproducts, pose no meltdown risk and — if successfully commercialized — could produce electricity at a regular and predictable rate (unlike wind and solar). Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer stated, “this astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy.”
Unfortunately, Senator Schumer is getting ahead of reality. Despite the enormity of this scientific result, which suggests it may be possible some day to generate electricity using fusion, there are still immense engineering challenges that must first be solved. Because of the inefficiency of the lasers, much more energy overall was actually used to create the fusion reaction than was produced by the reaction itself. If a fusion power plant is to be commercially viable, energy output would have to be many times greater than energy input, and this will have to occur regularly through time. While fusion does not generate the same type of radioactive nuclear waste as fission, using radioactive tritium fuel does create radioactive waste, and there are still the problems of induced radioactivity in the materials exposed to neutrons from the reaction (nonradioactive deuterium could instead be used as fuel but that fusion reaction produces six times less energy). Right now, the fusion targets are thin diamond containers suspended in the center of a gold cylinder that is precisely constructed, and this and other factors suggests that the cost of future fusion power plants would still likely be very high. Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, notes in The Washington Post, “Useful energy production from miniature fusion explosions still faces enormous engineering challenges, and we don’t know if those challenges can be overcome.”
The long engineering road ahead also means that, at least for the first half of this century, fusion will not make an impact on the climate problem. We still face the need to decarbonize our energy system as fast as possible, and we clearly cannot wait for fusion energy to be part of this solution. Bill McKibben notes that, while we might some day be able to take advantage of this “second sun,” to get out of the climate predicament we’re in, we’re going to have to take advantage of the sun we already know about.
The Washington Post examines a vital problem that is preventing more carbon-free electricity in the U.S. — trying to connect a new power plant to the grid. It is taking twice as long in 2020 to connect a plant to the grid as it did in 2010. At the end of 2021 there were 8,100 projects waiting for permission to be connected (93% of these are solar, wind or battery storage), and together they represent more than the combined power capacity of all U.S. electricity plants. Experts have estimated that the U.S. will have to increase its transmission capacity by 25% over the next decade to meet its climate goals.
In The Guardian, George Monbiot describes the remarkable promise of precision fermentation to substitute for traditional agriculture and livestock production. Precision fermentation uses microorganisms to produce a protein-rich flour that can be used to create a diverse array of foods (it has been used for years to produce insulin and other chemicals). If used widely for food, this technology could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, greatly increase opportunities for ecological restoration by reducing the land devoted to agriculture and livestock and enhance food security across the globe.
Inside Climate News describes the conflict in rural Ohio regarding the siting of solar power plants. This story is the fourth in a series about the conflict over solar power in rural Ohio. Despite the climate benefits and added tax revenues, one major proposal was recently defeated because of local opposition (and another was just rejected as well). Much of the opposition was fomented by misinformation about solar panels, and a recent Volts podcast examines the role of right-wing “dark money” groups in organizing and promoting this opposition. The New York Times examines the proposed Goose Creek Wind facility in Illinois, where 19 nights of hearings were held as local government considered whether to issue a permit. While some opposition is driven by a clear desire to maintain traditional land uses, there is also evidence of citizens being confused by misinformation from online groups.
A much more positive outcome for rural solar installations in Chisago County, Minnesota, is told by Inside Climate News. Although some residents are uneasy about the amount of solar that has been developed in their county over the last seven years, there is no evidence of feared negative impacts to soil, water or property values. New York Magazine describes the defeat of a recent bill to reform permitting (for fossil-fuel plants and renewable-energy facilities). The author argues that “there is no decarbonizing the economy without permitting reforms,” and suggests that progressives interested in climate action should be compromising on this issue.
The New York Times profiles the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit focused on promoting fossil fuels and spreading misinformation about climate science. The foundation is active all around the United States, attempting to block renewable-energy projects and promoting oil, gas and coal. Many people think that climate misinformation and climate denial is no longer a problem, but it’s still a pervasive force in American politics (and from cable TV celebrities like Tucker Carlson). In a novel legal effort, The Guardian notes that oil companies have been sued by 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico claiming that deceptive practices by the companies amount to racketeering. The suit targets many companies that supported the Global Climate Coalition, stating that they conspired “to influence, advertise, and promote the interests of the fossil fuel industry by giving false information to their consumers and the public at large.”
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform released its report that documents the deceptive practices of the oil industry, noting that “Big Oil has misled the American public for decades about the reality of the climate crisis.” While I had originally linked to the House Committee’s press release, I had to change the link to the Union of Concerned Scientists as the Committee’s website no longer contains the content (presumably due to the change from Democratic to Republican control of the Committee). Yale e360 notes that recent investigations have exposed a report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute in the late 1960s that documents how well the risk of carbon emissions was understood by the oil industry at that time. Climate One interviews Ben Franta of Stanford, who provides a great historical perspective on the misinformation activities of the oil industry that continue today.
Meanwhile, Grist reports that climate action is actually more popular than Americans think. “When asked to estimate public support for measures such as a carbon tax or a Green New Deal, most respondents put the number between 37 and 43 percent. In fact, polling suggests that the real number is almost double that, ranging from 66 to 80 percent.”
MotorTrend Magazine delves into the question of whether EVs actually reduce carbon emissions, given the energy used in manufacturing batteries. This is an argument that gets bandied about a lot. Although new EVs have a slightly higher carbon footprint than new internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, as they are driven that quickly flips. About 75% of the total carbon emissions associated with ICE vehicles are from the fuel used to propel them, and 75-84% of the energy in the fuel is burned up as noise, heat and drivetrain losses. EVs are more efficient, with 87-91% of the energy in the battery used to move the car.
An op-ed in the New York Times argues that we must be more innovative as we think about building for the future. Traditional responses to damage from extreme weather, in which we in essence build back what was there before (but usually bigger), just won’t cut it. We have to embrace the reality that the future will be different, and need to transform our communities as we rebuild them if we are going to be ready for it. Another op-ed describes the need for state regulators to more aggressively support transmission upgrades that will allow renewable-energy projects to flourish, as many such projects are currently unable to connect to antiquated transmission lines.
PV Magazine describes a recent innovation from a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: solar cells thinner than a human hair. “The thin, lightweight solar cells have many potential applications, including integration into boat sails, adhered to the side of tents, or applied to the wings of drones.” In the past, such cells were manufactured using complex, expensive processes, while the new MIT-developed solar fabrics are just printed.