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Ernest Moniz: The Race for Low-Carbon Firm Power

Good Clean Energy is a new podcast about how to build a world with abundant, affordable, carbon-free electricity. TAE’s Chief Marketing Officer Jim McNiel hosts in-depth conversations with scientists, innovators and energy experts about the challenges our electricity systems face and the race for game-changing, clean ways to power our lives.

Our first guest is Ernest Moniz, the former Secretary of Energy under President Obama and CEO of the Future Energy Initiative, a nonprofit working to accelerate the clean energy transition. He joins the show to talk about the need for low-carbon firm power, the promise of fusion, and what will ultimately drive energy policy.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jim McNiel: It’s interesting. To explain energy to a child, you have to tell them, Hey, pick up that apple. Lift it three feet, now put it down. Now do that every second. Every time you do that, it requires a watt. A watt of energy. Now, if you want to light a bulb, you have to do that a hundred times to light a hundred watt bulb. Now, that’s energy. Energy is basically power in motion.

Everything we do is about energy. You know, the fact that there’s a phone on your nightstand that wakes up in the morning fully charged. Where did that come from? It came from burning a fossil fuel, wind blowing over a turbine, sun falling on a solar panel. You take it for granted.

I think it comes down to this, if you’re talking about energy and what energy means to us as human beings, it is the ability for us to spend our time doing the things we want to do instead of the things that we have to do. All the trees I do not have to chop up and store next to my house and then haul into my house and light to make a fire, to heat my home and cook my food so I can survive.

Have you thought about what it means to have energy? Because I live in the developed world, all this stuff is at our fingertips, and that is not true for everyone on the planet so this race to get equity in terms of quality of life is a race for energy and access to energy.

What we need for the future is good clean energy. Renewable, carbon free, abundant electricity for everybody.

On the show, we’re going to explore what’s involved in actually delivering good clean energy. There’s no simple solution. Every approach has its own costs. We’re here to explore that. On this show, we’re gonna talk to scientists, analysts, big thinkers, innovators, and you. We’re here to talk about how good clean energy can change our planet.

Welcome to Good Clean Energy. I’m your host, Jim McNiel.

When it comes to talking to somebody who can explain energy in a concise and understandable way, I can’t think of anyone better than former Secretary of Energy for President Obama. The expert, the authority … Professor Ernie Moniz.

Jim McNiel:  Ernie Moniz, you’re the CEO of the Future Energy Initiative and also the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I’m wondering if you could comment on how those two things are connected.

Ernie Moniz: Well, in a certain sense, we’re dealing with what are major threats: Nuclear weapons. Pandemics . And of course climate change. They are all linked because, for example, major dislocations of populations around the world from climate change can trigger potentially very bad consequences with regard to nuclear but also would act as new vectors for disease. So they are all linked but what I want to emphasize is, in both organizations our focus is on reducing the threats and finding solutions.

Jim McNiel: Well, there hasn’t been a time historically when energy and resources have not been a point of contention between nations, right? Energy is a major contributor to global conflict and war, and now you’re bringing in climate and the migration of peoples who have been displaced either because of natural disaster or food disaster or political pressures. These things are existential threats what you’re pointing to.

Ernie Moniz: Correct. And what I would also add to that list explicitly is water pressure. Right now, droughts to floods are having even more impact than I think is realized. For example, right now, the Middle East, which is obviously a geopolitical tinder box because of energy, that area is extremely water stressed today. That is a big part of the tensions that one sees in that part of the world.

Jim McNiel: It comes back to the problem we have which is 80% of electricity produced today comes from fossil fuels. They produce carbon, they heat up the atmosphere, it leads to what we’re talking about. So what are the choices we have?

Ernie Moniz: Clearly we are seeing enormous progress in renewables, in particular wind and solar. However, those are weather-dependent sources of electricity.

The reality is we are not going to solve the problem of getting an essentially zero or very low carbon electricity system, which is absolutely needed, without a lot of what’s called firm power. Firm meaning you can have that power whenever and wherever you want it.

Jim McNiel: On demand 24/7. Always there. So to point out that wind and solar work when the sun shines and wind blows. You added batteries so that they can store energy and then be called upon when they’re needed but those batteries don’t come cheap.

Ernie Moniz: It’s always going to be an hours kind of storage solution. But the trouble is when you look in detail, we’ve looked at Texas for example. We looked at one year, and in Texas, 90 days roughly of that year had no wind. There was no wind for almost 10 days in a row in the state. You can’t run a reliable system that way, so you’re going to need other forms of power.

Today there are natural gas and nuclear fission power plants. But as we go forward, natural gas will have too much carbon emissions unless we can dramatically increase, from practically zero, the capture of released carbon dioxide.

We really need alternatives that are low carbon. Now, nuclear power as we see it today could be expanded. But we will never solve the challenge of substantial nuclear waste, highly radioactive nuclear waste, because it is inherent to the nuclear fission process. Nuclear fission, just to be explicit, is the splitting of uranium for example.

This is where nuclear fusion comes in. Obviously not available yet, but tremendous progress is being made. Nuclear fusion would be an example of a nuclear process taking lighter, very light elements and fusing them together to produce energy without producing the major challenge of nuclear waste that one sees in fission. In addition, nuclear fusion has no threat whatsoever to the public in terms of safety concerns. So nuclear fusion being realized as a power source would be a total game changer.

So the most straightforward and the most commonly pursued approach to nuclear fusion would be for the isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is fairly common—in the oceans, for example. It’s one proton, which means hydrogen, with one neutron.

The real holy grail is what’s called aneutronic fusion. Fusion that does not produce neutrons, also does not require tritium and uses only common elements. TAE Technology for example, the goal there is to fuse protons with boron 11 to produce three alpha particles. Alpha particles are —each one is two protons and two neutrons—the advantage there is it’s very easily managed, very easily engineered, and so this would be a real holy grail for fusion.

The challenge, however, is one will need to reach plasma temperatures of the order of 10 times as much as deuterium tritium. One is trading off a scientific challenge that we think is doable for a much, much easier and hopefully much less expensive device.

Jim McNiel: So we’re talking about a hundred million degrees for DT, deuterium tritium, and potentially a billion degrees C for proton boron. But the difference being that with proton boron, you’re not worried about neutrons irradiating your first wall, starting a decay process. You don’t have to use robots to manage your machine. You don’t have to go into the decommissioning strategies that you have to do with nuclear fission plants. Is that also the case? Because I think when you’re doing radioactive work, you need to think about the end game as well as the beginning of it.

Ernie Moniz: You don’t have the problem of producing large amounts of tritium because tritium itself is radioactive. When we talk about radioactive activation of materials, of walls that are confining the plasma, this is not to be confused with the very high level radioactivity produced in the fission process. That’s the fission process itself; it produces these highly radioactive products. That is not the case with fusion. But going to proton boron 11 then means you also have a much simpler engineering problem for the materials you have.

I think we have a very good chance of positively proving in this decade that the fusion process works. And then we’ll have to engineer the power plant so that’ll be a few more years. But again, we’re not talking about decades of difference. We’re talking about probably less than a decade. It’s looking very encouraging.

If you look around the fusion landscape at privately funded companies, when one sees almost 5 billion dollars of private capital invested in these companies, somebody thinks there’s a pretty good shot at this turning out positively.

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