On November 19, 2021, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted a virtual event with Tyler Ellis, Senior Advisor at Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS); David Livingston, Senior Advisor to the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate; Marco Margheri, Atlantic Council Board Director and Head of US Relations at Eni; and Amy Roma, Partner at Hogan Lovells. Panelists discussed the role of fusion energy in US decarbonization and the pathways to commercialization and deployment. The event was moderated by Julia Nesheiwat, Distinguished Fellow at the Global Energy Center and US Commissioner on the US Arctic Research Commission. Opening remarks were delivered by The Hon. Lori Trahan, US Representative from Massachusetts’ 3rd District.
Representative Trahan kicked off the discussion by highlighting the work being done in the Congressional Fusion Caucus to spur the development of fusion technology in the United States. Namely, last fall she and Congressman Connor Lamb sponsored an amendment to the Clean Energy Jobs and Innovation Act to expand fusion research and development at labs and universities. This became law in the Energy Act of 2020. Trahan also touted the $325 million devoted to milestone-based fusion energy development in the House’s version of the Build Back Better Act and called on the audience to ensure this provision survives Senate negotiations.
From there, Ellis gave a breakdown of how fusion technology generally works, pointing out that between the 20 companies in the Fusion Industry Association, the approaches to fusion vary widely. CFS itself uses high-temperature superconducting magnets, and has broken ground on what they believe will be the first net energy-positive fusion facility in the world, SPARC, in Massachusetts. CFS demonstrated the success of high-temperature superconducting magnets in September this year, and plans to have SPARC running by 2025, 10 years ahead of ITER in France. After SPARC, CFS plans to get its first power plant, ARC, operational and on the grid in the early 2030s.
Some of the highlights of fusion energy that Ellis mentioned include the avoidance of proliferation concerns, the inability of facilities to melt down, and the simplicity of the facilities themselves, which evades critical materials input challenges. Margheri further emphasized the supply chain advantages of fusion technologies in helping to make the technology easier to scale and deploy. In addition to avoiding these negative aspects, the facilities would also be compact and powerful, something Nesheiwat further emphasized.
The key to getting fusion off the academic sidelines and onto the electric grid is through public-private partnerships (PPPs), according to Ellis. While the $325 million in Build Back Better is excellent, he also brought up $560 million the UK government is putting towards fusion PPPs, as well as Chinese investments in this field. Livingston believes that the growth of private sector fusion companies is a competitive advantage of the US, and although “the continued progress on ITER is critical and important…we need to build on that progress in new ways as we prepare for a world with commercial fusion.” Livingston pointed specifically to the Department of Energy’s cooperation with private fusion companies through the Innovation network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE).
On international cooperation, Margheri stated that the US and EU complement each other. The EU has an ingrained top-down regulatory and target-setting perspective driven by its political system, and the US is fearless in its quest for moonshots, bringing together public and private players, developing innovations, and bringing ideas and concepts into the game. At the same time, Margheri posited, fusion creates an opportunity for trans-Atlantic cooperation to demonstrate a nimble PPP model that leverages academia, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit to bring developments to fruition quicker than other systems.
When it comes to international competition, Ellis underscored the importance of being at the leading edge of regulatory certainty to keep domestic fusion companies based in the US. In particular, he noted that the UK is setting itself up as an attractive location, since in addition to their $560 million towards PPPs, they have also declared their intention to regulate fusion systems in a similar manner to how they regulate other accelerator and medical radiation facilities.
Livingston also identified the interconnectedness of fusion with energy more broadly. Instead of seeing fusion as a siloed sector, Livingston said, investments and advancements in adjacent fields have had positive knock-on effects, such as with quantum computing. In the same way, he emphasized, opening the door on fusion creates new opportunities globally in negative emissions, desalination, and other interlinked environmental challenges. Margheri added on to the capabilities of fusion in decentralized applications which helps with siting and energy access issues. Roma, giving Kenya as an example, highlighted that these decentralized applications are absolutely necessary for the developing world. Although 75% of Kenya’s population now have access to electricity compared to 25% a few years ago, for many people that electricity is merely a single lightbulb. Getting fusion rolling can address a host of problems for developing countries.
Much of the discussion centered around regulating fusion facilities. Aside from the comment about the UK’s regulation plans, Ellis stressed that dialogue at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the coming year would be on whether fusion should be regulated similar to research accelerators and medical radiation facilities, or creating a more onerous regulatory approach like exists with fission systems. More specifically, Roma emphasized that the NRC’s existing regulations were not crafted with fusion in mind, but there are robust frameworks of regulations that apply to different radioactive materials, such as for byproduct materials, source materials, and special nuclear materials, and that as the materials involved grow in seriousness and scale, the regulations increase. Roma noted that currently regulation on fusion is quite flexible and relaxed, since most fusion fuels are using byproduct materials, putting them under Part 30 regulations. Ellis believes that Part 30 is a useful framework for right now and that he doesn’t see anything being needed in addition to that for the near-term. Ellis added that in the US there is also a system of delegating regulation to individual states to regulate facilities under Part 30, which adds flexibility and speed to the development and demonstration process.
Moving forward, Margheri laid out three elements in developing fusion over the coming years. First, fusion needs to move out of research and academia and into actual development, which is ongoing. Second, fusion needs to be flagged in global climate policy and taxonomy considerations. Third, regulators need to be supportive and understand that fusion is not analogous to other existing energy technologies and should not be regulated in the same restrictive ways unless absolutely necessary. In closing, Livingston was carefully optimistic about the future of net zero and the 1.5-degree target, noting that 65% of global GDP is aligned with net zero, and fusion can be a key tool in helping to align the remaining 35% of global GDP. He also called attention to the need to occasionally think about the long arc of energy. “All energy technologies, even clean energy technologies we’re going to deploy over the coming decade, have their own evolution and their own senescence, and we need to invest in the next waves of clean energy transition, the future evolution of the clean energy transition in the decades to come,” Livingston concluded.
Jordan Bekenstein is a Fall 2021 Young Global Professional at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.
The Hon. Lori Trahan
US Representative (D-MA-3)
US House of Representatives
A conversation with
Commonwealth Fusion Systems
US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate
Atlantic Council Global Energy Center;
US Arctic Research Commission