Wednesday, March 29, 2023
HomeWorldNuclear fusion energy can help fix world’s heating woes. Here’s how

Nuclear fusion energy can help fix world’s heating woes. Here’s how

Combined with heat pumps, the cheap and abundant power of nuclear fusion would revolutionise in-home energy use. And it could be available as soon as the 2030s.

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  • Fusion has long been dubbed the “holy grail” of clean energy. It is the opposite of fission – nuclear power with no risk of meltdown.
  • There has been a breakthrough, announced by the US Department of Energy as an energy milestone, which validates the technology.
  • Combined with heat pumps, the cheap and abundant power of nuclear fusion would revolutionize in-home energy usage wherever it is deployed and could be available as soon as the 2030s.

The US Department of Energy has announced a breakthrough on nuclear fusion, achieving a net energy gain for the first time, in a fusion experiment using lasers.

This news comes amid an energy crisis that is playing out across the temperate world: people need to stay warm during the winter, but the costs both in money and emissions are growing — many are turning to rudimentary heating fuels such as wood and coal, with high carbon output. As people seek out cheap ways to keep warm this winter, it is clear that we need long-term investment in cost-competitive, stable and clean energy.

While the growth in renewables over the past decade has been promising, nuclear fusion is only beginning to gain the recognition and support required to push it toward commercial use.

Nuclear fusion by the 2030s

Fusion is the process that powers the sun and the stars. It makes life viable on Earth. It works by fusing two light elements together, creating a new element with an aggregate mass slightly less than the combined mass of the original two elements. This rather tiny difference in mass drives a tremendous release of energy.

Nuclear fusion reactors around the world are being built to find the best way to control and capture the energy of such reactions.

Pioneering inventors, including TAE Technologies in Southern California, are racing to bring this natural process that fuels the sun down to Earth, with terrestrial fusion power plants. It’s an idea that’s been around since the late 1950s, but that has moved forward dramatically in recent years. Commercial fusion power generation is expected by some to roll out in the 2030s — which could give the world a seismic final push to meet the UN’s 2050 climate goals, if implemented broadly and quickly.

At COP27 there was plenty of talk about cutting emissions in half by 2030 to meet targets we’ve set in the Paris Agreement, and the responsibility of more developed nations to assist poorer countries that are already being battered by climate change. Nuclear fusion, however, was not a major part of the conversation — but as the drought and heat waves in Europe, the flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria and every other climate catastrophe has recently shown, we need large-scale changes. The transition to nuclear fusion in the coming decade could provide just that.

Nuclear fusion power would revolutionize the energy sector — and one of the most environmentally impactful and increasing needs is in home heating and cooling. Inexpensive, plentiful power derived from a nuclear fusion-fueled grid could spell the end of heating-season chaos like we’re seeing this winter.

In the US — where the heating oil used to fuel furnaces in the northeast is in short supply, and the closure of nuclear plants across the country is leading to skyrocketing electric bills — many are in the midst of a cold and expensive winter. The home-heating chaos makes it abundantly clear that the inefficient and highly polluting systems we have need to be relegated to the past.

One technological solution for heating and cooling that is reliant on electricity is poised for widespread adoption: heat pumps.

Heat pumps are already gathering momentum

By harnessing the energy in the outside air, which is present even on cold days, and moving it inside in the form of heat, heat pumps can efficiently warm a home. During the summer, the process can be reversed, moving heat out of the house in order to cool it. Despite doing all the work of central heating and cooling, heat pumps use far less energy than an oil burner or HVAC systems.

In the past, the biggest hurdle to actually getting a heat pump has been cost. A house-wide system costs about $10,000. But adoption will only be more rapid in the US now that there’s an $8,000 federal tax credit that was passed as part of the United States’ $369 billion Inflation Reduction Act.

The technology still needs to overcome the common misconception that heat pumps can’t hack it anywhere that experiences true winter. But, as widespread adoption in Scandinavia over the last ten to fifteen years has shown, heat pumps can operate in frigid temperatures. Right up against the arctic circle in Norway, nearly two thirds of homes rely on heat pumps to stay warm, and just over 40% have them in Sweden and Finland.

In New York City, heat pumps are becoming common in new developments, and a new programme will start introducing them into the city’s public housing this winter, which has long-standing problems with broken furnaces and inadequate heat. In the rural northeast, heat pumps, in combination with rooftop solar, are increasingly common, moving residents away from burning fuel and firewood. As more cities follow San Francisco and San Jose in banning gas hookups for new construction, heat pumps will be the de facto replacement system.

Invest in nuclear fusion now for future generations

If we as a society are going to electrify home heating and other residential appliances, we need affordable, carbon-free electricity to power them.

Investing in the development of nuclear fusion energy today could pay dividends for generations to come.

With inexpensive, super-abundant fusion electricity, the efficiency of heat pumps can really shine: home heating and cooling costs would be negligible compared to what people pay for heating oil in the northeast, or the wildly high electric rates caused by instability in both supply and geopolitics.

Without that, future winters will be just as chaotic and damaging, from both a social and climate perspective, as this year’s already is — if not worse.

Jim McNiel, Chief Marketing Officer, TAE Technologies
The article originally appeared in the World Economic Forum.

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