Former energy secretary Ernest Moniz joined Chief Marketing Officer Jim McNiel on TAE Technologies podcast “Good Clean Energy” on January 3, 2023. They discussed the need for low-carbon energy sources that could provide firm power—meaning that they could reliably provide power whenever and wherever needed. Moniz largely focused on the promise that nuclear fusion has for becoming such an energy source. TAE Technologies is a fusion company, and Moniz is a member of its board of directors.
Nuclear power is currently produced through fission, which is when uranium is split apart for energy production. Fission is a low-carbon energy source, but waste and safety concerns have often prevented more widespread usage. As Moniz explained, fusion would avoid these waste and safety issues.
“Nuclear fusion would be an example of a nuclear process taking… very light elements and fusing them together to produce energy without producing the major challenge of nuclear waste that one sees in fission,” said Moniz. “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.”
Moniz added that the private sector is investing nearly $5 billion in fusion innovation, showing that many people recognize its potential. He emphasized that over the next decade, there could be multiple additional nuclear fusion breakthroughs.
“More than one [approach] could conceivably have that first Kitty Hawk moment in this decade,” he said, analogous to how the Wright Brothers’ first flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, showed that flight was possible. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Moniz also made the “Kitty Hawk moment” comparison.
But he said we do not stop there. Moniz added, “It’s about going [from technology breakthrough] all the way to the power plant.”
Moniz praised the Biden administration for convening a summit to jumpstart the commercial development of fusion energy. The U.S. Department of Energy announced at this summit that it would offer $50 million for science and technology research to help with the development of a fusion power plant. But according to Moniz, government should invest more to make meaningful, near-term progress on fusion technology development. He said time is a luxury we could not afford.
“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,” said Moniz. “We’ve got to compress that. We don’t have 35 years.”
Moniz also discussed the role that natural gas has played in providing firm power for our country’s clean energy transition. He acknowledged that in the short-term, we would need natural gas, but that long-term reliance on it could prevent us from meeting our emissions reduction targets.
“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,” he said. “But as we go forward, the natural gas itself will become too carbon intensive.”
He said we should focus on alleviating negative impacts not only to the environment but to communities. Native American communities have historically faced disadvantages from mining activities, and Moniz said we need to find ways to extract domestic rare-earth metals that do not lead to additional environmental justice concerns. He also underscored how on a global level, we need to produce more energy to decrease wealth inequality.
“We need to lift [people in underdeveloped countries] out of poverty without breaking the bank on CO2,” he said. “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.”
See a full transcript of the podcast and an Insights piece rounding up Moniz’s fusion media coverage.
– Georgia Lyon, Communications Associate
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