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Energy fusion breakthrough caps year of profound energy sector change

In this 2012 image provided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a technician reviews an optic inside the preamplifier support structure at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. Officials at the Department of Energy say on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, there will be an announcement of a “major scientific breakthrough” on nuclear fusion. (Damien Jemison/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory via AP)

Last week, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California heralded a breakthrough on fusion energy, with researchers able to generate more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it. The research was made possible not just by those involved in the national laboratory, but a panoply of other organizations, including academic organizations, international partners, and stakeholders within the U.S. government. If fusion energy is ultimately scalable and commercially viable, it could be another significant tool in the decarbonization toolbox. As countries and companies navigate an ever-changing energy landscape where ambitious clean energy targets, energy security concerns and supply chain constraints need to be balanced, it is becoming increasingly clear that collaboration has never been more important to successfully traverse this rocky terrain. 

Looking back on the past 12 months, 2022 has been one of profound change for the global energy sector. Among others, extreme weather and climate, the war in Ukraine, inflation, as well as supply chain delays have created seismic fault lines in the global energy sector. These are unlikely to remain short-term issues and are likely to have ramifications we are only beginning to understand. We are entering a time of increased uncertainty, making it difficult to plan for the months and years ahead. 

Meanwhile, calls to accelerate decarbonization of the world’s energy economy are growing in urgency. Nearly 200 countries at the recent UN climate conference COP27 in Egypt reaffirmed the need to reach aggressive clean energy targets by mid-century. A successful clean energy transition will require careful planning and shared learnings. Recent research from EPRI, which I lead, examined the U.S. economy-wide, net-zero clean energy target by 2050 and found that a broad set of low-carbon technologies — including hydrogen, nuclear, wind, and solar — underpin a reliable, affordable transformation. 

There is no silver bullet though. No single pathway toward economy-wide decarbonization will work for all regions of the world. Every country, region and locality will choose its own path depending on its existing natural resources and industrial and socio-economic characteristics. Because no solution will fit all, we need to keep all solutions on the table, whether that’s advanced nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and so on.  

Importantly, we need to pursue research in all options now, so the technologies are available when we need them in the future. If we limit the technologies and materials needed to get us there, the clean energy transformation will be unnecessarily costly, longer and possibly less resilient. In other words, optionality is not optional; it is a requirement. 

Without a doubt, the Russian war in Ukraine has significantly disrupted a large portion of the global energy supply. It has not only created substantial loss of human life and economic and social disruption, but also chasms that we are only beginning to understand. In the energy sector, the war has amplified energy security concerns in Europe that will affect policy and energy industry decisions for years to come. Prior to the war, Russia supplied approximately 40 percent of all natural gas to Europe, mostly via pipeline. As of this fall, it had dropped to about 9 percent. European nations are now forced to accelerate their own energy transition and are looking to other partners and energy resources to meet their short-term energy needs. For example, several European countries are opting to maintain or increase their reliance on nuclear power plants, giving them another option for low-carbon energy. Some countries are increasing its liquefied natural gas imports, while others are trying to accelerate the deployment of renewable resources. 

Amid increased needs for rapid clean energy deployment around the globe, another significant global development — supply chain constraints — have hampered deployment and highlighted energy and national security considerations. These supply chain issues have been driven by the pandemic, as well as exacerbated by geopolitics, labor shortages and shifts in demand for clean energy. As demand for solar, wind, battery energy storage and other clean energy generation drastically increase to decarbonize the global energy sector, the gap between power system component supplies and demand may well widen. 

These issues could remain pervasive and may constitute a major impediment to innovation and the execution of important policy and energy industry priorities. Whether supply chain constraints are short-lived or not, nations are giving additional attention to supply chain vulnerabilities and manufacturing and transportation bottlenecks. Global collaboration and emphasis on research that will explore operational efficiencies, end-of-life solutions and new manufacturing components will be critical to develop solutions to these new challenges. 

An EPRI white paper earlier this year examined the global energy supply chain, highlighting some of its challenges. The clean energy transition could mean a shift from a fuel-intensive to a material-intensive energy system, introducing new risks in how we create and carry energy. For example, the mineral needs of lithium-ion batteries —the most common battery type used in both stationary battery energy storage units and electric vehicles (EVs) — vary considerably and typically include a combination of lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite, which are often found in just a handful of countries. Manufacturing and assembling of important technologies are also concentrated in some areas, limiting supply chain options and exacerbating security concerns. 

Lastly, growing inflation in the U.S. and other major world economies has become a major issue of concern that has significant ramifications for the energy industry and its customers. It only aggravates the situation that other shocks highlighted above have helped create. In its late November outlook, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that persistent inflation, high energy prices, weak real household income growth, falling confidence, war and tighter financial conditions are all expected to curtail economic growth. The global economy is projected to grow at a modest 3.1 percent this year before slowing to 2.2 percent in 2023. 

We are entering a time of increased uncertainty. Myriad issues are out of our collective control, but what we can control is how we adapt and respond to these changes and how we prepare for the future. This is the decade we need to turbo charge innovation and early deployment to make net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 a reality. If we are to have a reliable, affordable and equitable clean energy transformation, it will require all of us collectively working together, sharing best practices along the way.  

As the English poet John Donne said, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” I have no doubt that we can navigate these and any other global challenges — if we work together. 

Arshad Mansoor is president and CEO of the nonprofit organization EPRI. 

Tags Climate change cop27 Energy Fossil fuel Global warming

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