U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry unveils an international fusion plan at COP28

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Former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz joins Good Clean Energy from Dubai to explain.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

John Kerry: Fusion, I believe, can be a critical piece of our energy future, obviously along with wind and solar and nuclear fission and geothermal and other forms of energy. The cadence of new and exciting fusion announcements has obviously increased over time…. We are edging ever closer to a fusion powered reality. Collaboration and knowledge shared are essential to beginning to accelerate what we’re trying to do and they’re vital as we collectively tackle the scientific and engineering challenges that lie ahead. So building on a decadal vision, I’m pleased to announce the U. S. International Engagement Plan for Fusion Energy….

Jim McNiel: That was the U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, former Secretary of State. He’s made a huge announcement at COP28 in Dubai about fusion. For the first time, fusion is on the world stage backed by the full strength of the U.S. government. He was followed up by the White House chief advisor on Clean Energy Transition, Costas Samaras, who gives us more detail.

Costas Samaras: Energy technologies have long taken decades to get from the starting place to the market, and we do not have decades. International collaboration is one way to kickstart and supercharge the opportunities in fusion energy that we’re seeing in the private sector and really accelerate the pathway between now and a commercial fusion power plant.

The new international partnership announced today includes R&D, includes supply chain, it includes workforce, it includes public education. And really, it’s about doing all those things at the same time. So just like a computer will take different tasks and break them up and do them on different chips, we call it parallel processing. We can’t do all of those things independently and wait to build up a global supply chain and wait to build up a diverse workforce and wait to build out the type of marketplace and finance. We have to do them all at the same time. And that’s really what this international partnership and the President’s bold decadal vision is all about. Accelerating the promise of fusion energy for all.

McNiel: Hey, this is a big deal. Kerry brings the world’s attention to fusion and what we have to do to bring it to market as quickly as possible. And he lays it out. I mean, we talk about support for research and development, supply chain and marketplace, workforce education and development, public education for the world to understand what fusion means. Policy development, legal framework, all these things are critical. But you have to ask the question, where’s the money? If we’re going to match what happened in the 60s on the moonshot, which in today’s dollars is about 250 billion, if we’re going to really have a bold decadal mission for fusion, we need to back it up with some bucks.

So to learn more about this, let’s talk to our frequent guest, Dr. Ernie Moniz, former Secretary of Energy, who’s on the ground in Dubai.

You’re listening to Good Clean Energy. I’m your host, Jim McNiel.

Jim McNiel: Hey Ernie, how are things in Dubai?

Ernie Moniz: Well, as always, an intense meeting and this one is particularly large. It’s Emirati scale, you might say. I think the organizers have made it a somewhat more pragmatic conference, and that is shown in terms of the discussions at least with regard to the technology-solution space.

Frankly, previous COPs have been completely dominated by discussions of renewables and batteries, and that’s, of course, a very important part of the future, but here I’ve never seen so much discussion about nuclear, about CCS and within the nuclear space, a completely novel initiative, a session on nuclear fusion.

McNiel: And how has that affected the conversation? I mean, has it moved fusion into the forebrains of the people on the ground there? Has it become a conversational point?

Moniz: Well, the nuclear discussion as a whole has been elevated tremendously and there’s a buzz around it. The fusion session that I took part in really caused its own buzz. Everybody wanted to know what was going on. It’s never been discussed here before and I think what was captured by the audience was the enthusiasm, both of those engaged in developing fusion, the scientists and engineers, and the enthusiasm certainly of the United States government in terms of its rather profound shift in the approach to fusion and then of the attitudes coming from the public, advocates who are not scientists but who see what fusion means to them and to all of us.

McNiel: The engagement initiative that Kerry announced seems like a fairly comprehensive framework. It talks about research and development, talks about workforce education and development, talks about supply chain and marketplace, talks about public education, So these are all good things that we need to do. Oh, and also policy and regulatory. There was one thing absent and that was a big bucket full of money. Do you think that this framework is going to be instrumental in driving a conversation on the Hill about budget in 24?

Moniz: I think the international initiative itself, I don’t think will move the Congress, but frankly I think the Congress has already been moved. I think they will be looking for ways to support this strongly, and I think that’s going to be the case across the aisle.

McNiel: But I think to companies like TAE, which has not really been funded by any kind of government money, it’s always been private money, if this actually helps to educate a larger investor base about the promise of fusion, that in itself could be a very positive event.

Moniz: Absolutely. I think there will be, I believe, additional funds, public funds, flowing in. The critical issue is how those funds are structured so that the private sector, TAE and the other privately funded companies, continue to be the ones that drive the programmatics.

McNiel: Well, I think we win really on all counts, but the research and development part is obviously a sticky wicket because what TAE has developed is proprietary. We certainly can benefit from access to the Frontier computer at Oak Ridge and other governmental resources, maybe support on beam development or something like that, but it’s not going to be an open door exchange of IP. That’s for darn sure.

Moniz: No, that’s correct. The international program announced, it did not have direct collaboration on building fusion devices. I think what is hoped to emerge from here would be more collaboration on things like materials, needed well, of course, for deuterium-tritium fusion, needed for managing the radioactive situation. That’s not the case for TAE with its ultimate neutron-less, approach, but of course, even for TAE, we do have materials issues, dealing with the very, very high temperature plasmas that need to be confined, And then there’s always been an aspiration for some shared facilities, for example, to do materials testing.

I’ll also note, a step forward, I think that was quite interesting, that has gotten in my view, surprisingly little attention. And that was on December 1st, the Emiratis, came forward with a significant amount of investment funding, equity funding, to work in collaboration with three major North American equity investors—BlackRock, Brookfield and TPG Climate. Matching funds and including some so-called catalytic funds. So, that’s a total of 30 billion on the table.

McNiel: That can make a difference.

Moniz: That could make a big difference. And you know that we’ll see what the timing is. The Emiratis actually said that they want to scale that by 2030 to something like 250 billion dollars. That’s some pretty serious money.

McNiel: That’s getting into Apollo program territory, 250 billion dollars.

Moniz: Yeah, and if they continue this idea of trying to leverage by working with, for example, Western private equity funds, this could be a real serious contributor to moving forward on deployment of clean energy technologies.

McNiel: Well, the thing that’s frustrating for me, Ernie, is that, if this were 1960, this would be JFK saying, “We go to the moon, not because it’s easy, we go there because it’s hard” and he mobilized 400,000 Americans and spent 25 billion in ’60s dollars to put a man on the moon. Joe Biden said, ‘This is a bold decadal vision that we’re going to achieve fusion in the next 10 years,’ without the substance behind it to make it happen, right? So, I wonder, is it possible to have a conversation on the Hill, a bipartisan conversation, because obviously this is a bipartisan issue. For the left, they care about the environment. For the right, they care about energy security and U.S. prevalence on the world stage. Is that conversation taking place at all, anywhere, besides in my own head?

Moniz: Well, first of all, as an aside, let me just note that the president of the Fusion Industry Association also made a point about China’s major steps in fusion and wanting to make sure that we are well placed in the West, and in the United States specifically, that motivation has already proved itself to be a major bipartisan stimulant to Congressional investments, the Infrastructure Act, for example. I think that is there in the background.

In my view, I think that we should think about ways in which the government can, the public sector can assist the private sector to move forward to the demonstrations that we anticipate happening in the next five years or so of the fusion conditions. And then I think that is the point at which I think we can unleash huge amounts of private and public capital to start moving towards the commercialization of fusion, which would be a game changer.

And I think private capital will be there, with some public support, especially in terms of helping manage financial risk. Anytime you have first-of-a-kind technologies being deployed, et cetera. So I think this is a 10-year program. And we come out of that with a good run towards big scale up.

McNiel: As a private equity guy, if I had run into a deal in the year 2000 that said, Hey, you know, you’re not going to have to pay federal tax for 20 years on this program, that would really increase my return opportunity. And it seems like a no-brainer for the United States government to say anyone who deploys a fusion power plant or a carbon free power plant, can be put into that category. I don’t think that really costs the U.S. a whole lot and achieves a great accomplishment.

Moniz: Well, I think that, as usual, when it comes to that, the devil’s in the details as to how the Congress structures it. But I think going in that direction, especially for fusion will be very attractive across the aisle and I think will attract support. We have to help shape that support in ways that really moves the program forward at an accelerated pace. So I’m pretty optimistic on the technology and the science side, but I’m also pretty optimistic that there are stirrings of public private partnership that are going to be different as we think about deployment.

As a reminder, in the energy space in general, the United States and I would say Europe as well, but let’s say in the United States, there has not been until quite recently, a real major focus on the diffusion and deployment of technologies. Now it’s clear. We passed the hump on some bipartisan support for industrial strategy, understanding that we need it to compete, understanding that takes public private partnership. It takes resources to move it. And now it’s a question of getting fit for purpose vehicles to do that, and to do the kind of risk reduction that will unleash large amounts of private capital.

McNiel: I think that the really good news is that since you first visited TAE, there’s been tremendous amount of progress and science achievement and there’s more to come. Because right now we’re building our sixth generation reactor, Copernicus, which is targeted to exceed a hundred million degrees Celsius and then demonstrate net energy out. So that’s the big milestone for us that we’ve been working on for 25 years to achieve.

Moniz: Well, and to be honest, the temperature goal for the fifth generation machine was blown past by a factor of more than two, and that was partly because of, for example, the collaboration with Google, using machine learning, and I think it’s an indicator that in this field, and it’s not only TAE, it’s other privately funded groups as well, who are bringing in the real cutting-edge technology. That is one of the reasons why we are making so much progress so fast. So to be perfectly honest, in the sixth generation machine at TAE, I’d be a little bit disappointed if you don’t blow well past a 100 million degrees.

McNiel: And then we have to go one more order of magnitude to get to the boron temperatures that we need after that. And so that’s what Da Vinci is going to do. But I think the thing that people need to appreciate is that there’s an acceleration taking place because of some of the things you mentioned. We’ve got more computational power, we’ve got AI, we’ve got ML, machine learning, and we also have advances in material sciences, and also AI support in designing specific components in the machine, and then using additive manufacturing to build them. It’s such a radical game changer that we’re not doing all this stuff with pencil and paper, we’re able to simulate our reactor in its entirety inside of a supercomputer. So it’s pretty cool.

Moniz: I think we’re going to just keep running fast.

McNiel: Okay, Ernie, you’ve been super generous with your time and I really appreciate you joining us again.

Moniz: Thanks, Jim. It’s always fun to talk and it’s especially fun to talk when you’re talking about solving some really hard problems for the future.

John Kerry: This is a human challenge, mankind challenge. It is in fact as existential as it has been described, and if it is existential and all of our countries are threatened, and they are and all life is threatened, then we need to pull ourselves together with every strength we have and every capacity we have in order to pursue every option there is to get there as fast as we can.

McNiel: Thanks for listening to Good Clean Energy. Make sure to follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google, or wherever you listen. And if you like what you hear, please give us a rating and a review. It makes a huge difference. I’m your host, Jim McNiel. See you next time.

Audio from COP28 fusion event courtesy of the Atlantic Council.

Good Clean Energy is produced by Jennifer Hsu. Mixing and sound design by Wade Strange and Mike Clemow at SeeThruSound. Digital production by Katherine Wiles.

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