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The race to fusion energy: a geopolitical opportunity that encourages international collaboration.

A conversation with Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association.


Author: Natalia Vasnier


fusion

Fusion energy may no longer be a distant scientific dream, as we discuss about the current breakthroughs of the industry and timelines for pilot plants with the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), Andrew Holland. Fusion energy might arrive sooner than we anticipated.


Andrew Holland is a policy expert based in Washington, USA. Prior to his role at the FIA, he worked for over 15 years on Capitol Hill and in think tanks, focussing on public policy issues around energy, the environment and national security.


His first encounter with the fusion energy industry occurred over a decade ago, when he wrote a paper outlining what an Apollo-style 10-year plan for fusion energy would look like and how would the US would do it. This paper allowed him to get involved with some of the world’s key players within the industry.


After realising that fusion energy was not going to occur “in that Apollo programme way, it became clear that there was a good opening for the private sector to come in. That is the big new development in the fusion sector in the last 10 years, as it shows the new way to get to commercialisation of fusion energy,” said Andrew.


What is fusion energy?


Fusion energy is created through the process in which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing a huge amount of energy.


Andrew Holland explains fusion energy to be “the best of all possible energy sources and the preferred energy source of the universe, with the one challenge being that we haven't done it yet.” What researchers are trying to do now is to replicate that process here on earth so that it can be industrialised and built at scale.” 


Over the past few years, the industry attracted over $6 billion in private investment, clearly showing the global interest in this sector.


Environmental advantages of fusion energy


Fusion provides a clean, safe, reliable and abundant source of energy. It emits no greenhouse gases; the main product of the reaction is helium. It is 100% zero carbon and clean energy. In terms of safety, Andrew says “this is something we know how to build safe, and we will”. 


He further explains that fusion is very attractive because there is virtually limitless fuel, there is very little threat of damaging off-site releases, indeed “Fusion energy has no risk of a meltdown because there is no chain reaction and there is no long-lived radioactive waste produced”.


“The world needs a new form of zero-carbon firm power, firm meaning always available, and fusion meets that need better than anything else.”

The FIA and its mission


The mission of the FIA is to be the unified voice of the private fusion industry by uniting all companies part of the supply chain of the fusion economy together. Their strategy is to advocate for the things that will accelerate that fusion future.


For now, “what the industry needs is to form public private partnerships, establish greater regulatory certainty for fusion projects and build an industrial ecosystem capable of scaling with the same incentives as other clean energy technologies”, Andrew explains.


For the fusion industry to succeed, it is essential that the regulatory regime for fusion energy is commensurate to the risk and is not just reflexively built off the regulatory regime for nuclear fission.


Meeting our 2050 climate goals requires “an aggressive build out of clean technology”. “We do not see fusion as necessarily competing with any other technologies, we just need it all the clean energy we can produce and to get it onto the grid as fast as possible.”

 

Various approaches to fusion energy


The industrial fusion ecosystem is very diverse. The approaches of companies range from laser inertial fusion energy to magnetically confined fusion energy. Some use lasers, some use magnets, some use pistons, others use pulse power, these are all different designs and types for how to confine and generate the fusion energy.


Andrew adds that “the market has not yet determined what the winning power plant designs will be and who and how these companies will commercialise. This huge variety is a real strength of the market-based approach. Fusion is hard, and there's no guarantee that any one company or any one technology will be the right one. The more shots on goal you have, the better risk management you can do.”

 

Recent scientific breakthroughs


There have been several large breakthroughs over the last two years. In December 2022, the National Ignition Facility in California, a laser inertial fusion energy facility, announced for the first time ever that they achieved a breakeven or better fusion power pulse. Since then, it has been replicated it several more times. This was a real milestone for the whole industry, Andrew said, “as it shows that it was not just a fluke, but something that allows you to envision the pathway towards commercialization.”


In February 2024, researchers from JET, the Joint European Torus based in Oxfordshire in the UK, announced they had achieved a world-record 69 megajoules of fusion energy generation. This accomplishment showed it is possible to control and reliably generate fusion energy from a large tokamak.


Other companies have also reported milestones, with several projects achieving temperatures over 100 million degrees C in their fusion plasmas.

 


fusion

Leadership in building the fusion economy


The FIA’s chief executive argues that the US economy is currently a leader within this sector. In a 2023 report, the FIA describes the growth of fusion companies globally as a technological explosion. Overall, they identified 43 private fusion companies around the world, and 25 are American companies.  “This shows a significant leadership here in the companies that are going in the US,” he said.


The FIA’s strategy of building more public-private partnerships is a growing trend across this sector. In 2023, it was reported that 18 companies were involved or would soon be involved in such partnerships with governments.


When looking closer at US leadership within this space, he states that “the American government is not yet a leader, because they have not yet allocated the significant amounts of funding into research. They have continued status quo budgets that support the fusion programme and support the continued scientific research into fusion, but they have yet to make the significant outlays that are required to actually do this.”


A global race toward commercial fusion energy is emerging. On the other side, Andrew observes that China is making very significant advances. They have some of the best physical infrastructures for fusion, but whether they have the best scientists or engineers, “that's a different question.” It is increasingly becoming a global race. But who will be the leader and where? This is still an open question.


Private investment and timelines for fusion pilot plants


A recent FIA survey highlights that 25 of the 43 fusion companies believe that the first fusion plant will deliver electricity to the grid in the 2030s. The UK, EU, US, Japan, are all pulling towards this this same decadal time timeframe, and “companies are going to determine which of those is the appropriate place”.


The private sector clearly has a role to play, with over $6B invested into fusion energy. Andrew says, “whether or not governments wish it, the private sector has a plan to get to commercial pilot plants by the early part of the 2030s.”


Andrew adds, “One of our companies, Helion Energy, has signed a power purchase agreement with Microsoft to produce 50 megawatts of fusion electricity in 2028. This is an aggressive timeline and aggressive target.”


In terms of regulatory support, governments have a role in reaching this goal. “Governments must support fusion research and make sure that we're able to do this in coordination with the public sector”.


At the moment, the UK government is designing the safety and regulatory regime for fusion. Andrew explains, “they have purposely not put it under the Office of Nuclear Regulation, who regulates their nuclear power plants, and instead, they put it under the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency.” The UK recognises that fusion energy facilities will not be subject to nuclear site licencing requirements and will not be regulated under the same framework as nuclear fission.

 

Process to fusion commercialisation


Andrew explains that “We are confident that as we build the next machines, they will be the commercially-relevant, proof-of-concept machines. Once we have those, we can swiftly move to designing and building the pilot plants, and then we can show to customers that we can produce electricity at a cost that is viable for future production.” 


When thinking about the economic aspect of the fusion economy, like any other market, as the industry scales up it will drive down the costs over time. The FIA CEO recognises that “the first moments of any sort of new technology are always expensive. But over time, as the technology matures, you should expect to see this price go down significantly. The targets for costs are equivalent to, if not better than, current fossil fuel power plant costs.”


“Fusion will be competitive in an emerging global energy industry.”

He mentions that “in the early days of a fusion power economy, fusion is going to compete as a firm source of power, meaning it is always on and always available for the sectors that need consistent, reliable sources of power. Currently, firm power sources are often coal or natural gas power plants and nuclear fission reactors. The tremendous growth of data centres and energy needs for computing, like with AI, means there will be an ever-greater demand for clean, reliable power. In the long run, fusion energy will be needed to meet that demand.”


Fusion, a solution to energy insecurity


Fusion energy will increase energy security since fusion does not rely on a fuel resource like petrol that is finite, buried under the ground and subject to geopolitical risks. Looking at the past two years in Europe, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine there was clear concern about the EU’s reliance on Russian gas and coal. Andrew stresses that “a world of fusion power would not have these vulnerabilities. Instead, we would be able to turn energy from something that you pull out of the ground to something that is fundamentally a manufactured product.”


International collaboration on fusion research


There is a long history of international collaboration on fusion research. Dating back to the Cold War, the Soviet Union, USA and the UK determined “to declassify their research and share it.” 


Since then, there has been wide ongoing global collaboration and sharing of research. Andrew adds, “ITER is an important scientific experiment, and we see countries who do not often get along well with each other sharing research”.


At COP28, the US announced its new international fusion strategy to sign deals and work collaboratively with other like-minded countries.


“It is a geopolitical race, however, there is need for international scientific collaboration.”

 

Vision of the future and advice


When asked whether he is an optimist or a pessimist about the future, “I am 100% an optimist, I think we are doing the right things now in terms of getting as much as clean energy onto the grid, and once fusion gets into the market it will accelerate the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate industries. In the future, fusion will be needed to support direct air capture of carbon.” 


Andrew informs, “People often come into this industry thinking it is very high science, however, this industry also requires people with different skills. There is a need for engineers, lawyers, public policy experts, lobbyists and specialised builders.”


A 2022 study showed that $500M was invested into the fusion energy supply chain, including jobs. He urges to act sooner rather than later: “The earlier you get involved into a new industry, the more expertise you will have as it scales up”.[16]

 

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Andrew Holland interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Featured image provided by Andrew Holland and Abstract Reactor Tokamak Stock Photo - Download Image Now - Nuclear Fusion, Nuclear Power Station, Fuel and Power Generation - iStock (istockphoto.com).


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