Global Warming Update for December 2021
Now that the Glasgow Global Warming Convention is over, we can review what we know and where we are headed. It is my opinion that if it wasn’t for the Federal Infrastructure Package just passed by the Senate and Signed by President Biden, I would say we were all screwed. The CO2 in the atmosphere continues to increase and will be increasing faster and faster for the foreseeable future. The plots of global primary energy consumption in figure 1 below from the U.S Energy Information Administration shows what I mean.
Figure 1- Global Energy Consumption over Time
Yes, the projection show that use of renewables will increase rapidly in the future, but the use of petroleum, natural gas, and even coal also increase out past 2050. This is driven largely by low cost of fossil fuels in the third world and the fact that current renewables need a backup power source that are not batteries because batteries are currently too expensive. Therefore, our best projections say that the parts per million (ppm) of Carbon Dioxide will continue to increase thru 2050 and at an accelerating rate as shown by the height of the fossil fuel bars in the right portion of the figure.
The figure also shows what we need to do to solve this problem, i.e., rapidly switch to the world’s primary power to nuclear. This hasn’t happened because current pressurized water fission powerplants are expensive to build and not inherently safe to operate. We can and will do better with the proposed generation IV fission development powerplants currently under construction, and with experimental fusion reactors under construction and hoping to reach breakeven power generation within five years. More about that later.
I had hoped the Green Initiative part of the Infrastructure Bill would really kickstart the switch to nuclear power, but I was sorely disappointed. However, it does include a number of nuclear energy-related provisions, including support for keeping nuclear power plants facing economic hardship operating and funding for DOE’s Advanced Demonstration Program (ARDP). These provisions are relatively small potatoes relative to the energy problem but briefly summarized below:
· US$6B civil nuclear credit program. The Bill establishes a civil nuclear credit program designed to preserve the existing nuclear fleet and prevent premature shutdowns of nuclear power plants. This provision is anticipated to preserve immense amounts of carbon free electricity as well as high-paying jobs. The Bill both authorizes and appropriates US$6 billion through FY 2026 (US$1.2 billion per year) to the Department of Energy (“DOE”) to implement the program—therefore this program is fully funded. (Finally. It has been in limbo for years!)
The program is intended to provide support for economically troubled plants so that they can remain open. Plant owners/operators would need to apply for the program, explaining their need.
Interestingly, in applying for the credit, applicants must provide “known information on the source of produced uranium and the location where the uranium is converted, enriched, and fabricated into fuel assemblies for the nuclear reactor for the 4-year period for which credits would be allocated.” In awarding the credits, the Secretary of Energy “shall give priority to a nuclear reactor that uses, to the maximum extent available, uranium that is produced, converted, enriched, and fabricated into fuel assemblies in the United States.” (Politics in action).
Plant owners and operators will have to submit applications to show a need and to ensure taxpayers’ money would be well spent, Jeremiah Baumann, DOE’s deputy chief of staff, told reporters yesterday. More details will be released in the coming weeks and months about the process and how money will be allocated, he said. The program could run for five years.
“It’s designed to support those nuclear facilities that need economic support in order to keep operating and keep providing the benefits of that emissions-free power to communities across the country,” Baumann said. “So it’s not sort of a universally available automatic piece that goes out to anyone.”
· Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) Support. The Bill includes both authorization and appropriations for DOE’s ARDP program, one of DOE’s most important programs for advanced nuclear. The ARDP is intended to speed the demonstration of advanced reactors through cost-shared partnerships with U.S. industry. Specific support in the Bill includes the following:
· Authorizes the full amount to support the DOE’s ARDP Demonstration projects. The Infrastructure Bill contains funding approvals for DOE’s ARDP Demonstration projects and authorizes US$3.2 billion through FY 2027 for the advanced reactor demonstrations, which combined with the previously authorized funding from FY 2020 and 2021, makes the demonstration projects fully authorized. Note, this provision is an authorization and not an appropriation.
· Appropriates US$2.4 billion to fund ARDP awards from FY 2022 through 2025. While Congress had previously appropriated funds to support DOE’s ARDP awards for FY 2020-2021, this provision of the Bill appropriates additional funds for existing ARDP awardees for FY 2022 to FY 2025. These funds are limited to “projects selected prior to the date of enactment of this Act” which would appear to reserve funds for all ARDP projects selected to date. Unlike the US$3.2 billion which is authorized for the advanced reactor demonstration awards, this funding may be used for the risk reduction and advanced reactor concept projects as well. While this appropriation does not fully fund the ARDP awards already issued throughout the lifetime of the award, it does go a significant of the way there.
For context, DOE has three types of ARDP awardees:
· Advanced Reactor Demonstrations Projects, which are expected to result in a fully functional advanced nuclear reactor by the end of a seven year term. DOE-NE has selected two awardees under this program. The ARDP currently authorized US$2.5 billion across seven years for two cost-sharing agreements—i.e. US$1.23 billion for each awardee—for nuclear reactor demonstrations that were first funded through fiscal year 2020 appropriations, with US$80 million provided in the first phase of the cost sharing plan. The Bill officially appropriates funding for the rest of the seven-year term for the selected awards.
· Risk Reduction for Future Demonstrations, which supports up to five additional teams resolving technical, operational, and regulatory challenges to prepare for future demonstration opportunities. The goal of the Risk Reduction program is to design and develop safe and affordable reactor technologies that can be licensed and deployed over the next 10 to 14 years. DOE-NE has selected five awardees under this program and in 2020 DOE stated it expects to invest US$30 million for each awardee in the first year of the award.
· Advanced Reactor Concepts 2020 (ARC 20), which supports innovative and diverse designs with potential to commercialize in the mid-2030s. The goal of the ARC-20 program is to assist the progression of advanced reactor designs in their earliest phases. DOE-NE has selected three awardees under this program, and in 2020 DOE stated it expects to invest a total of US$56 million in ARC-20 over four years, with industry providing at least 20 percent in matching funds.
Other nuclear provisions of the Infrastructure Bill include the following:
· Establishes an Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations within DOE. The Bill establishes a new Office of Clean Energy Demonstration (“OCED”) within DOE to conduct project management and oversight of the ARDP demonstrations and other covered clean energy demonstration projects, to include providing independent oversight of project execution, independent cost estimates for proposals, and ensuring a balanced portfolio of investments in covered projects.
The Bill provides US$21.5 billion for the OCED. According to a DOE Fact Sheet, the US$21.5 billion includes the $8 billion for clean hydrogen hubs, US$10 billion for carbon capture, 1 billion for demonstration projects in rural areas and US$500 million for demonstration projects in economically hard-hit communities. The Bill also designates US$2.5 billion for advanced nuclear to the OCED, which appears to be the same funding authorized for the ARDP.
Currently the Office of Nuclear Energy has jurisdiction over ARDP, however, it appears that the new OCED is intended to cover all clean energy demonstration projects, which would include ARDP demonstration projects. How this structure will work remains to be seen, but we anticipate the Office of Nuclear Energy will maintain jurisdiction over the ARDP projects until the new office is fully operational, so as to not introduce project delays, and that the two offices will ultimately work together to leverage the technical expertise in the Office of Nuclear Energy with respect to the ARDP projects. Further, the Bill states that the OCED shall consult and coordinate with technology-specific program offices to ensure alignment of technology goals and avoid unnecessary duplication.
· Demonstration program for regional clean hydrogen hubs, which include nuclear. The Bill establishes “hydrogen hubs” with a number of different power sources The hubs are intended to (1) demonstrably aid the achievement of the clean hydrogen production standard; (2) demonstrate the production, processing, delivery, storage, and end-use of clean hydrogen; and (3) can be developed into a national clean hydrogen network to facilitate a clean hydrogen economy. At least one of the regional clean hydrogen hubs must be to demonstrate the production of clean hydrogen from nuclear energy. The Bill appropriates US$8 billion in total for the Clean Hydrogen Hubs. I’m sure this “hydrogen hub” will be located in a key congressman’s district. More politics in action.
· “Clean energy” project on current and former mining lands. The Bill authorizes a new clean energy demonstration on mine lands program and appropriates US$500 million for the program. “Clean energy” is defined to include advanced nuclear. Another congressional benefactor is rewarded.
· Advanced reactor siting feasibility studies for isolated communities. The Bill authorizes assistance for feasibility studies for siting advanced reactors for the purpose of identifying suitable locations for the deployment of micro-reactors, small modular reactors, and advanced nuclear reactors in isolated communities. This one actually makes sense.
· Property interests for advanced reactors. The Bill provides federal government authority to transfer real property for advanced reactor demonstrations and authorizes longer term protections for intellectual property related to nuclear technology used in demonstrations. Another well-thought-out action.
· Changes to DOE Loan Program related to calculating “reasonable prospect of repayment.” The Bill made changes that are expected to make the DOE Loan Program more usable by reducing the credit subsidy costs that borrowers must pay. Yes – a good idea.
Overall, nuclear is supported in the Infrastructure Bill. It should have been supported better because it is critical to our survival, but at least we got some meaning investments. In addition to the nuclear-related provisions embedded in the Infrastructure Bill, the “Build Back Better (BBB) Act” still pending in Congress could provide even more benefits to the nuclear industry if it becomes law by including a production tax credit for operating and new nuclear plants. I have very mixed feelings on BBB because it is trying to right a too many wrongs with a single piece of legislation and includes huge outright gifts to a number of Democratic supporters. We will see how BBB turns out.
What are some of the nuclear reactor concepts I favor?
Here are two long-term solutions I favor and am familiar with because they are local and run by people I know.
Terrapower’s Traveling Wave Reactor is designed to be a liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor that will greatly simplify the current nuclear fuel cycle, reducing the need for uranium mining and spent fuel storage facilities. Eventually, it will eliminate the need for enrichment facilities and reprocessing plants. This will result in enormous cost savings, highly enhanced safety, greatly reduced waste, greater ease in waste disposal and a high level of proliferation resistance. Today, the TWR design remains an important, long-term goal of the Natrium™ program. (I discussed the Natrium Reactor Project in my second-to-last Blog).
A fleet of TWR plants will be able to operate for centuries with unenriched uranium fuel, needing enriched uranium to start only the first reactor in the long chain of plants. Only the first plant, but none of the long series of plants that are its direct descendants, will need enriched fuel. The TWR design offers 30 times moreefficient use of mined uranium and a factor of five reduction in waste, all based on a once-through fuel cycle without the safety and proliferation concerns of reprocessing used fuel. Unlike previous sodium fast reactor programs, the TWR design eliminates reprocessing, reducing proliferation concerns and lowering overall fuel cycle costs.
With its major nonproliferation benefits, it will be an ideal technology for international deployment, as many new countries turn to emissions-free nuclear energy to meet the needs of their citizens and growing economies. An artist’s conception of the TWR is shown in figure 2 below.
Figure 2- Traveling Wave Reactor Cutaway View
Helion Fusion Reactor Developments
Helion Energy today announced the close of its $0.5 billion Series E funding, with an additional $1.7 billion of commitments tied to specific milestones. The round was led by Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator. Existing investors, including co-founder of Facebook Dustin Moskovitz, Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and notable sustainable tech investor Capicorn Investment Group also participated in the round. The funding includes commitments of an additional $1.7 billion dollars tied to Helion reaching key performance milestones. Round-leader Altman has been involved in the company as an investor and chairman since 2015.
Fusion energy has been a fiery dream for lovers of clean energy since the first controlled thermonuclear fusion reaction was accomplished some 60 years ago. The technology promises the carbon-free power of current fission reactors, at a fraction of the risk, with far less radioactivity when running, and with very little radioactive waste. There’s been one catch: So far, it has been hard to get the fusion process to generate more energy than it has been consuming to keep the reaction under control. Helion Energy’s concept is shown in figure 3 below.
Figure 3 – Cutaway View of Helion’s Fusion Reactor Concept
Helion, as a company, has been focusing less on fusion as a science experiment and more on a more important question: Can their technology generate electricity at a commercial and industrial scale?
“Some projects in the fusion space talk about heat, or energy, or other things. Helion is focused on electricity generation. Can we get it out fast, at a low cost? Can we get it to industrial-scale power?” asks David Kirtley, Helion’s co-founder and CEO. “We are building systems that are about the size of a shipping container and that can deliver industrial-scale power — say on the order of 50 megawatts of electricity.”
In June of this year, Helion published results confirming it had become the first private fusion company to heat a fusion plasma to 100 million degrees Celsius, an important milestone on the path to commercial electricity from fusion. Soon after, the company announced it had broken ground on building its factory to start the process of preparing for manufacturing of its seventh-generation fusion generator, which the company calls “Polaris.”
“We ended up pivoting a little bit in direction, to focus less on scientific milestones of energy and focus more specifically on electricity. We had to prove some of the technologies on the electricity, and electricity extraction side of things. We also needed some funding things that had to happen to get us all the way to those technical milestones,” Kirtley reflects. “Unfortunately, that took a little bit longer than we had hoped.”
As part of the investment round, Sam Altman steps up from being the chairman of the board, to Helion’s executive chairman, with a higher degree of activity, including input into the commercial direction of the company.
“Our first funding round was led by Mithril Capital, and Y Combinator was part of it. That’s where we got introduced to Sam. He has been involved in our fundraising ever since. He is an ambassador that actually understands physics; it’s pretty amazing. We were really pleased that he was interested in leading the investment, rather than us having to bring in external investors that might have been differently aligned and have a less deep understanding of the technology,” Kirtley explains. “He’s seen the successes, and he has seen what they mean. That’s why we’re excited not only to have him as an investor but have him more actively involved. It means we can accelerate the timelines. The funding is part of it, and the technology is another part of it. Ultimately, we need to get it out there in the world, and that’s something Sam can help us do.”
“I’m delighted to be investing more in Helion, which is by far the most promising approach to fusion I’ve ever seen,” said Altman. “With a tiny fraction of the money spent on other fusion efforts, and the culture of a startup, this team has a clear path to net electricity. If Helion is successful, we can avert climate disaster and provide a much better quality of life for people.”
Helion’s CEO speculates that its first customers may turn out to be data centers, which have a couple of advantages over other potential customers. Data centers are power-hungry, and often already have power infrastructure in place in order to be able to accept backup generators. In addition, they tend to be a little away from population centers.
“They have a backup power of diesel generators, giving them a few megawatts that keep the data centers running just long enough to sustain any power grid issues,” Kirtley says, but suggests that the company is more ambitious than just replacing backup diesel generators. The low cost and high-power availability mean that the company could start powering whole data centers as the default power source: “We are excited about being at the 50-megawatt scale, and being able to get electricity costs down to a cent per kilowatt-hour. You can completely change how data centers work, and you can really start answering climate change. Our focus is making low-cost and carbon-free electricity.”
Due to physical limitations with the way the power is generated, the current generation of the company’s tech wouldn’t be able to replace your Tesla Powerwall and solar panels — the size of a generator is roughly the size of a shipping container. But at 50 megawatts, the generators could power around 40,000 homes, and with that amount of power, the technology could open some really interesting opportunities for distributed power grids.
One interesting innovation in Helion’s power generation solution is that it doesn’t use water and steam as intermediary steps in the power generation.
“At the beginning of my career, I kept looking at the way we were doing fusion and said hey, you have this beautiful energy that is all electric, including the plasma. And then what do you do? You boil water, you use an old, low-efficiency, capital-intensive process,” explains Kirtley. Instead of going via water, the company decided to skip a step and use inductive energy instead. “Can you bypass that whole era? Could we do the equivalent of bypassing the gasoline engine and go right to electric cars right from the beginning? And so that’s been what we’ve been focusing on.”
The company is aiming to be able to generate more electricity than what it takes to run the fusion reactor by 2024, and the CEO points out that the goal at this point is to generate electricity at a commercial scale.
“Our 2024 date is not a key demonstration of the science at this point. The goal is to go after commercially installed power generation. There’s a huge market, and we want to be able to get this out in the world as soon as possible,” concludes Kirtley.
“By focusing on getting to electricity as soon as possible, we should be able to count on fusion as part of the natural conversation we’re having about climate change and about carbon free electricity generation. We’re really excited we’ve secured this funding, and the amount we raised should be able to get us all the way there.”
These are two very important candidates for solving our global warming problem, not immediately, but within a meaningful time period. They deserve government funding, but smart capitalist money is starting to find its way to them. Hope for the best.
Thanks for Reading,