Cheap power is progressive

Why should “progressives” downplay the prospects for breakthrough progress in energy production via fusion?

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Cheap power is progressive”

  1. Great post. That ThinkProgress piece was just incredibly bizarre, especially that critique about how the decade-long timeline means it will come too late for their imaginary "hold the line on emissions" due to expanding solar and wind power. I'm fairly confident in saying that emissions from rich countries will not peak in 2015 unless it's probably followed by a long economic collapse.

    A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.

    This. Having cheap electrical power is an incredible social benefit, especially if we can use some of it to replace reliance on emission-generating engine fuels.

  2. It is good news. Given the huge difficulties fusion has faced getting tokamaks to work properly, it's reasonable to keep the champagne on ice for a couple more design iterations. It's clearly time to pull the plug on research and subsidies for the dead duck of nuclear fission.

    Mark, as is common among pundits who have not been following this closely, greatly underestimates recent progress in bringing the costs of wind and solar down. Even the IPCC uses out-of-date numbers. For instance, here's a bona fide solar entrepreneur putting up solar pv plants in Mexico at 20% under grid parity. Under. In the US Midwest, wind farms are selling 20-year PPAs for 2.1c/kwh, say 3c with the PTC. You need to add a bit to these prices for grid integration, but far less than opponents imply. There is no cost problem, there is no technology problem, there is no free rider problem: only the Kochs and their friends and hirelings stand in the way.

    In fact, the problem for Lockheed’s fusion scheme is likely to be making it competitive in a world of dirt cheap first load variables. It doesn’t look easily rampable, unlike geothermal, biomass or pumped storage, so it will be competing for the vanishing “baseload” market. Like the German coal power stations forced to sell power some days at a negative price.

  3. Mark, looking at the ThinkProgress piece I think you're attributing to it an anti-materialism that isn't there. Sure, they (rightly) say that energy efficiency is cheap and relatively painless–the U.S. is way behind most of Europe on that–and should be the first line of attack. But I don't regard that as reducing our net consumption levels.

    The ThinkProgress post's error results instead from conflating the claim that solar generation is practical now to the claim that if we only embraced it we could solve all our power problems now. It's still hard to produce high-load solar for industrial purposes. (While James has long pointed out that European post-industrial economies don't need much baseload power, Europe isn't where the carbon action is. China and India aren't post-industrial, and the fact that we've outsourced the energy-dense parts of our economy to Asia shouldn't distract us from how important this is.) And it will still take, a long, long time for every home in the wealthy world to be powered by solar or wind: if ThinkProgress thinks a carbon reduction of 10 percent a year starting now is mandatory, the physics of solar works but the logistics may not.

    All this said, we in fact don't know whether fusion will be a viable alternative to coal within ten years. For sure we could throw some money at it on a "low probability, high payoff" basis. But that's no reason to get less excited about solar, and about energy efficiency.

    1. I don't think you have ever been to Duisburg on the Rhine. Photo:… You can travel 50 miles East through a similar Ruhr landscape, one of the world's greatest concentrations of old-fashioned metal-bashing heavy industry. The so-called post-industrial economy is one in which growth is mainly in services, not one without blast furnaces, rolling mills and drop forges.

      There is something funny about "baseload" electricity demand. In California it's 21 Gw at 3 a.m., in Germany about 28 Gw. Germany has 2.5 times the population and vastly more heavy industry. Where does the very large disparity come from? This is a bleg, not a rhetorical question. Whatever the answer, baseload demand seems much more variable than is consistent with a mechanical fixed-coefficients account. There is little reason to think it won't respond to price incentives. In technical language, if firms have to pay more for midnight electricity, they will start turning things off.

  4. Terrific post Mark. This an issue that divides those who want a problem solved from those who want the problem to exist as a vehicle for their other political and emotional purposes.

  5. It sounds like a great idea, but I'm skeptical for a bunch of reasons. Not only have I been following the fusion business (both tokamak and otherwise) for 30+ years as a junior physicist and a reporter, but I've also followed the Skunkworks operation off and on for a similar period. It is, to say the least, very unlike them to make a big public splash with something that is so thoroughly preliminary (barely anything built at all). Maybe they think they can mobilize a lot of non-Lockheed money in useful ways by doing this, or maybe legitimize all the other, less-well-funded high-beta efforts going on in garages around the world. Or maybe someone in upper management has a pile of stock they want to unload.

    Oh, and James Wimberley: when you're making units that are as small and relatively cheap as the Lockheed boxes claim they will be, I'm not sure that baseload is necessarily where they would be looking to compete. Peaking power is so bleeping expensive, and something like this could handle an entire region. (If it works at all).

    1. This cuts to the very heart of the matter. A press release with almost no details save a video showing a young-ish researcher, and a shiny gee-whiz device that … well, how does it work and what does it do? This plays out almost exactly the kind of whoop we saw with the Polywell back in the 2006 time frame, and which has sunk into obscurity — likely because there was never anything there in the first place. It is simply not possible to believe that, as the largest defense contractor in the US if not the planet, Lockheed hasn't waved this under the noses of everyone at the Pentagon and other government sources — and come up snake eyes. So, a noisy press release, and a clumsy attempt to cadge some of the more credulous Silicon Valley funding.

  6. Perhaps it's the fact that I've been reading about how fusion power is 'just around the corner' since an obscure Georgia governor became president, I'll class this as 'prove it'.

  7. "Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will."

    Why the pessimism? Are you saying that just to prove your point that "gloom and fear" are the "official emotions of the progressive movement"?

  8. I was hoping somebody more authoritative would chime in here but it's getting late so you'll have to make do with me. I'm an astrophysicist and not a plasma physicist but I've walked inside the mothballed Livermore Mirror Fusion Test Facility chamber and the laser bays of the National Ignition Facility, my Ph.D. advisor and several collaborators worked on Princeton's Large Torus tokamak, I've published analyses of X-ray diagnostic data from PLT, and have a pretty decent understanding of magnetic bottles, helium ash, diverters, low-Z walls and radiative losses, neutral beam injection and charge exchange, neutron activation of the containment vessel and brittle fracture, Hohlraums and laser plasmas, Z-pinch, etc. I don't know what Lockheed Martin is hoping to accomplish with this announcement if they have any consideration for their future reputation, but be skeptical. Be VERY skeptical.

    1. At the ClimateDesk blog at Mother Jones (syndicated elsewhere, I think), a thermonuclear plasma physicist with gobs of experience seconds the skepticism ("poppycock"), saying among other things that we don't have the materials to contain the heat involved at the stated reactor size.… (h/t

      Though there are of course some climate hairshirters—ThinkProgress' blogger not among them, as noted above—who hate the idea of not having to downsize our consumption, we should note that there's also wishful thinking on the other side: people with a bias towards big science, large companies, atomic age solutions, and large-scale infrastructure–and against anything that would require even quite manageable changes in daily habits (like swapping out a battery in one's car instead of gassing it up).

  9. "Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will."

    Um, no. The difference is that energy efficiency and renewables actually work right now and are cost-effective. There's no guarantee that this will ever be true with fusion. That's the whole point.

  10. In the US, at least, there's also a huge tendency (sometimes even — gasp — in bad faith) for the better to be the enemy of the good. Back in the early GWB administration there was the bit about how we didn't need CAFE standards because in 15 years we would all be driving hydrogen-fueled cars. Every few years since then there have been the hypefests about geo-engineering and no need to reduce carbon output because we can just suck it back out of the atmosphere or shade the earth or genetically engineer unicorns that breathe in carbon dioxide and poop diamonds. So it's not at all implausible to see a big splash for fusion as (intentionally or otherwise) offering an opening for those who want to keep being stupid.

    Meanwhile, the hair-shirt folks are not entirely off base, of course. Even if we solve the carbon-associated issues, there are plenty of other resources that may not standard up to universal US-suburban per capita levels of consumption. And even if we have utterly clean energy, ever-increasing consumption will lead to increasing equilibrium temperature unless we can magically radiate even more than we used to in lower-atmospheric-carbon times.

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