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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.


Jim McNiel: What do you think is the Kitty Hawk moment here when we know this is going to work?

Ernie Moniz: The first step will be to show that we can produce and confine the plasma at a hundred million degrees or even 150 million degrees, which then would be about 10 times the temperature at the center of the sun that we can confine that plasma sufficiently to produce electricity.

So that, I would say, is the first Kitty Hawk moment, to show that it will work. The second Kitty Hawk moment because we’re gonna have more than one Kitty Hawk moment, will be to show that this fusion reaction without neutrons works like proton boron 11, where again, we have to go a factor of 10 higher in. To show that works, I would call that the super Kitty Hawk moment.

Going from there to a power plant is certainly doable, but we have to be able to do it in a way that can be done in a way that economically supports a reliable zero-carbon electricity system. And that is eureka moment number three. It would be completely transformational for the low-carbon energy transition.

Jim McNiel: How do we know it’s going to be a Kitty Hawk moment versus a Sputnik moment? What’s to prevent China or Russia from getting there before we do?

Ernie Moniz: Other countries, including China and Russia, are clearly working on fusion. Russia in particular has been an early pioneer in what’s called the tokamak approach. In fact, they named it tokamak. And that is the technology Russia, one of the original partners along with the United States, Japan and Europe, in an enormous tokamak project —tokamak is like confining the plasma in a donut-shaped configuration. ITER, International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor, and that’s being built, over many decades, in France. That’s a very interesting project in which we will learn a lot eventually, but frankly many of us question whether that will lead to an economically viable approach. There are more compact versions of tokamaks. And there are other technologies, TAE is an example — rather than a donut, we have more of a sausage for confining the plasma.

Jim McNeil: How about a baguette if we want to keep in the baked goods category?

Ernie Moniz: I think it’s easy to visualize, but as you can imagine, making the sausage is also a much more open configuration. That is not a trivial consideration for the engineering of the power plant.

So there are a variety of approaches. There are others in addition besides these. More than one could conceivably have that first Kitty Hawk moment in this decade of showing the conditions are right but again it’s about going all the way to the power plant.


Jim McNeil: As Secretary of Energy, you had to think about this stuff all day long. Not just non-nuclear proliferation, but also energy resources. If you were no longer the Secretary of Energy, but you were the President of the United States and you had both houses in your party/pocket, what steps would you take to make fusion a reality in this country?

Ernie Moniz: First of all, I should emphasize I am indeed no longer the Secretary of Energy. I’m just not the President of the United States. That’s all. I actually think the steps taken recently by the Biden administration are in fact very encouraging, specifically I’m referring to the idea that now the administration and Department of Energy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House first convened a summit to bring together the privately funded fusion companies, which the government had not really been supporting, and made it clear they want to support them. I believe there is very strong bipartisan support in Congress for this direction.

They’ve put an initial $50 million on the table, which in my view needs to be, once again, multiplied by the famous factor of 10 at least. The CEOs of several of the privately funded companies were there, including TAE’s Michl Binderbauer, and with an accelerated goal in terms of producing electricity on the grid by 2035. I’m very encouraged by these steps.

Jim McNeil: And of course there’s also regulatory issues as well. And I believe that if we talk about aneutronic fusion, do you expect that we’re going to have the same kind of NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] restrictions on that type of plant as we do on a fission plant?

Ernie Moniz: There’s no reason to have the same kind of regulatory approach, because there aren’t the safety problems and there aren’t the high-level radioactivity problems of today’s nuclear plants. The NRC has not yet decided how to go forward. What we expect in the end will be some form of hybrid approach in which a new set of regulations will be drawn by the NRC.

Clearly as with any industrial enterprise, there are always worker safety issues to be addressed. There is this very low-level radioactive materials questions to deal with. And that will be dramatically reduced but we do expect that the NRC will have some form of licensing requirements but it should be nothing like that for nuclear power plants.

And frankly, there is an advantage to having the NRC set some national rules because the last thing you want in any energy technology, frankly, is to have highly variable state rules. So we do want national guidelines, but there certainly is no need in fusion to have those as expensive and as stringent as those for today’s nuclear power plants. And international guidelines would be even better. We’ve never quite managed that in any energy arena, but we do have some harmonization, some standards that are set.


Jim McNiel: The thing that haunts me is that if it were not for that basketball orbiting the Earth in 1959, I doubt we ever would’ve gotten a man on the moon in the next 10 years. That the $25 billion we spent in the Sixties, the 400,000 people we put to work, all of this was because of a substantial threat from Russia.

It was a Cold War event. It mobilized a nation under this aspirational journey to go to the moon. What’s it going to take to get people to understand that we’re facing something even more significant here in terms of what you opened up our conversation with—climate change and energy security? These are big events.

Ernie Moniz: I’ve certainly been arguing for years that eventually we will reach the point in the United States of having a national policy driving us to low carbon. And the reason we will get there is that extreme weather will keep getting more extreme. And the public clearly recognizes, from storm intensities and floods and droughts and forest fires, you name it, the public is realizing that this is getting very expensive now. It’s very disruptive now. Lives are turned upside down. You see it in the polls that the American public is more and more expecting action on this. I believe that will get more intense. That is, that political pressure will get more intense as we go forward, largely driven by these extreme events. Zero carbon electricity will all become much more a demand of the public. I should add to that by the way also energy efficiency of course to reduce energy requirements.

But, up to today, by far the biggest progress that the United States has made to lower carbon emissions has come from the switch from coal to natural gas, which produces less carbon. But as we go forward, the natural gas itself will become too carbon intensive. And that’s where things like nuclear technologies come in. Nuclear fusion, particularly, without having the radioactivity and any safety concerns whatsoever, will be very high up on that list. That’s why the administration has taken this new step of convening the private companies in fusion and is beginning to offer support. In our traditional way of managing the electricity system can be called the cheapest source because obviously the fuel costs of the sun and wind are zero.

However, the electricity system, the way it is managed, the first sources to get electrons onto the grid are those with the smallest marginal cost. The marginal cost is defined very narrowly, like what’s the fuel cost? We need a new system of managing the grid.


Ernie Moniz: There are going to be huge rare-earth needs. It’s not fully appreciated that if you take an offshore wind turbine, you will need one ton of what’s called a rare-earth metal. That’s a lot. We produce today almost none. We’re rebuilding that capacity a little bit. But right now, over half of the world supply is mined in China, for example, which raises obvious energy security questions.

Jim McNiel: We’re creating a conundrum for the traditional environmentalist who says, Hey, let’s not pollute any rivers. Let’s not dig any holes. And yet, at the same time, if you want to reduce the impact of climate change, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices in order to electrify the planet.

Ernie Moniz: I might add that the environmental concerns are not just on the mining and the processing. It’s linked to that. But we should also remember the environmental justice concerns which are major. Historically a lot of mining activity has disadvantaged Native American communities, for example, poorer communities, frontline communities. We can do better in terms of the environmental impacts, the community impacts, and we have to do that as part of our low-carbon transition.


Ernie Moniz: It always comes back to energy one way or another. As long as we keep emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it accumulates. Carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere for centuries and there’s a misconception that if we somehow lower carbon emissions, we are reversing the temperature increase. The answer, unfortunately, is no because we just keep filling up the bathtub. So eventually we would have to go to major negative carbon technologies to be able to even lower the concentrations in the atmosphere.

Today we are at almost 420 parts per million. That’s to be compared with the pre-industrial level of about 275 parts per million. It’s still going up. In fact, frankly, these last years, despite Covid, we’ve continued to see substantial increases, a lot of it driven by the emerging economies of the world, because it is a global problem…CO2 in the atmosphere.

So unfortunately, even with success in, let’s say, getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, we will still have a substantial residual in the atmosphere, which will continue to drive things like the extreme weather that we described.

Jim McNiel: So we’re going to need a breakthrough in carbon drawdown and sequestration, and that’s going to require a tremendous amount of power. And that power needs to be carbon free. So that loops back to fusion playing a major role in trying to fix the world for the future. But we don’t really know what the most efficient carbon drawdown and sequestration solutions are. They’re still under development, right?

Ernie Moniz: There are, in terms of, carbon drawdown, carbon dioxide removal solutions. For example, there is significant push, several pilot projects globally, in terms of directly essentially sucking the carbon dioxide out of the air and then putting it underground. That is very energy intensive.

The goal as the International Energy Agency has put it forward is around 10 gigatons, 10 billion tons per year. That would be an enormous industry, enormous electricity needs, and the costs have got to come down a lot. $200 a ton, $100 a ton. There are also natural solutions, planting trees. The problem is there is a lot of controversy over how much carbon that actually removes over time. If you plant a tree and it takes CO2 out of the atmosphere to grow, eventually the tree dies or it could burn. So there are all of these time-sensitive effects. So I would say right now we don’t really have a very good accounting system as to what the impacts on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be from those natural solutions.

But that again that’ll be worked on. One way or another, we’re going to need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which you can think of as rolling back the clock in the sense of it’s not today’s CO2 emissions you’re removing necessarily, but the emissions that we’ve been putting out over the last hundred years.


Jim McNiel: It’s important to think about energy equity and the fact that the developed world, whether it be in the United States or Europe, are huge consumers of electricity. So what happens when this developed world tries to get to power parity with the rest of the planet?

Ernie Moniz: The United States is around 12 or 13,000 kilowatt hours per year per person, and you have many of the least-developed countries where you’re talking about maybe a hundred or a couple hundred.

And in those societies, not only are they cutting down forests in some cases and burning dung and all of that. Often that is very directly connected to the lack of upward opportunity for women because they spend all their time collecting materials for providing minimal energy services to cook, to heat. We should never forget that it’s not just these dry numbers of how many kilowatt hours. It’s also women’s empowerment in these societies. But the question is, how are we going to, let’s say, ideally lift the entire world up into that 4,000 range without emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases? To give an idea as to what that challenge is today in the industrialized world, we’re talking about 10 to more than 20 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year per person. To reach a place where the world population is not dumping enormous amounts of CO2 and warming quickly, the world needs to get down to, let’s say, a ton per person on average.

Right now, some of those least developed countries are actually emitting less than a ton per person per year, but that’s because they’re in poverty. We need to lift them out of poverty without breaking the bank on CO2. And by having the industrialized world dramatically lower our CO2 emissions per capita. So that’s where we need dramatic decarbonization in the countries that are already using a lot of energy and we need to provide a lot of energy carbon-free to those places that don’t have it today.


Ernie Moniz: A word we have not mentioned yet, but very important in the climate discussion, is adaptation. In the industrialized world, we can afford to spend a lot on adaptation to protect us from the impacts of climate change. One of the most straightforward adaptation approaches is air conditioning. In these poor societies, they can’t afford adaptation. In fact, one of my colleagues at MIT, an economist, did some controlled analysis looking at heat mortality implications from increasingly hot weather in the United States and in India. Not surprising, in the United States, there was almost no increase in mortality because we adapt more with air conditioning. In India, the lack of air conditioning combined with extraordinarily high temperatures on increasing number of days, dramatically increasing mortality. These have real effects on real people.

Jim McNiel: And if you look at what happened this last summer, with our friends in the U.K. getting to 40 degrees C or 140 degrees Fahrenheit for days at a time, and even at 8 and 9pm and they don’t have homes that are air conditioned, they just traditionally haven’t had it. And so Europe has the money to adapt. So they’re going to be installing AC all over the UK and Europe in the months to come nd that’s going to increase their energy requirements. And now they’re also at a crisis because they can’t get a hold of the energy they need. And so I guess energy security comes into this whole conversation. It’s a complex mess of stuff.

Ernie Moniz: You really have to scratch to find any silver linings in the Ukraine situation. I would say one is that, unfortunately, it has put a sharp focus on energy security. The German situation is a classic in which they chose to have bad hygiene in their energy supply chain by being way overly dependent on one source: Russia for natural gas. And going off of a carbon-free source like nuclear. The slight silver lining is that many more people now understand that climate, energy, security, geopolitics and social equity cannot be put into their own silos. They really have to be one conversation.

The German situation is a good example where Germany was a leader, is a leader in deploying, especially wind, for low carbon. But at the same time, they paid no attention in any serious way to energy security. And that’s come back to bite them.


We talked earlier about carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere. One of the least expensive approaches there is called BEX— bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration. So the idea is you harvest some biomass, which could be by picking up the litter in western forests. It could be grown biomass, wood chips in the southeast, et cetera. and those have absorbed carbon dioxide in their growth. If you then combust them, let’s say, to make electricity, but capture the CO2 and store it underground, then it’s negative carbon technology. But again, you have to be sure, especially in the upstream part, the biomass collection that you are not putting big burdens on frontline communities.

So all of this we have to be working on now to be prepared for a scale up in the next decade, in the next two and three decades. There’s been very strong bipartisan support for carbon capture and sequestration, whose only purpose really is to keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

There’s also been very strong bipartisan support for nuclear fission, I would say now for nuclear fusion, for battery development, now for the supply chain improvements.

So on the innovation side, I think that there is bipartisan agreement where there hasn’t been, obviously, has been on any kind of national policy, such as putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions that has not enjoyed bipartisan support. However even there I see glimmers of hope.

I believe the continuing increase in extreme weather is going to create more and more public pressure on the political establishment to, in fact, affect national policy on low carbon.

We’ve got 25, 30 years to get this right and to get to very low carbon emissions. And we need to talk more about the roadmap from here to there. We need additional policy and regulatory reform to really make all of this get out there and push the system transition as rapidly and as equitably as we can.

Jim McNiel: I think it’s easy to forget how long it took for Microsoft to get into its full stride. Or for Oracle, or for Google, or for eBay, or for Amazon. These companies are the largest companies in the world today, but they weren’t in the first five years.

Ernie Moniz: In the energy sector, it’s not difficult to come up with a number like 35 years for some energy technology to go from the early stage to really at scale in the economy. And we’ve got to compress that. We don’t have 35 years.

Jim McNiel: We don’t have 35 years. Ernie, I can’t tell you how stimulating and interesting this conversation’s been. And I really appreciate where you’re putting your time. You have invested your time where I think your heart is on climate and on energy security and on safety for the planet, and I really appreciate it.

Ernie Moniz: Yeah. We all have children, grandchildren and we need to keep acting like we really have their interests at heart.

Jim McNiel: I think so. Thank you for making a difference. I really appreciate it.

Ernie Moniz: Thank you.

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