Newsletter: Which comes first, nuclear fusion or green hydrogen?

Sooner or later someone will ask you what’s up with nuclear fusion or green hydrogen.

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If you pay attention to clean energy, sooner or later someone will ask you what’s up with nuclear fusion or green hydrogen.

Both are garnering billions of dollars of investment, and interested parties make sweeping claims about their potential to transform our energy system for the better.

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Lucky for you, we’ve got new deep dives on each of those breakthrough clean energy sources, which remain years away from commercial readiness for very different reasons. 

Personally, I’m going to bookmark these stories, because they’ll be useful reference points for tracking these emerging sectors. I’ve pulled out the key takeaways for you here.

Dawn of the fusion age”?

Eric Wesoff evaluates the recent venture capitalist obsession with fusion, the game-changing technology that always seems to be five years away. 

The billionaire class and once-sane venture capitalists are enthusiastically embracing deep-tech fusion physics. More than $2 billion from dozens of private capital sources has been aimed toward commercializing nuclear fusion over just the last few years…
Either fusion has made great gains toward commercialization or venture capitalists and corporate investors have developed a markedly higher risk tolerance — or we’re in the midst of an irrational decarbonization bubble.

From that provocative premise, Eric offers a primer on how fusion actually works and a who’s who of startups winning funding from investors to take new approaches to the problem.

There are some eye-popping numbers in there. Try imagining what it means to heat matter to 160 million degrees Celsius.

Or process that an international consortium is building a state-of-the-art test reactor in France, but it won’t be ready to rock until 2035, assuming it doesn’t fall further behind schedule.

And Eric concludes with a warning, based on years of parsing gauzy claims about breakthrough technologies:

While the technologies differ, the wildly aspirational language, unachievable and receding targets, and investor herd mentality in fusion are the same bad behavior seen in previous bubbles (the dot-com bubble, the optical switching bubble, the biofuel bubble, the thin-film solar bubble). In fact, it’s some of the same investors as in previous bubbles.

The hydrogen revolution starts in Los Angeles

LA promised to eliminate fossil-fueled power while maintaining the level of reliability it enjoys from having 3,500 megawatts of gas power within the sunny metropolis.

The LA Department of Water and Power, the city’s utility and the largest public power company by revenue in the nation, hopes to achieve that with carbon-free green hydrogen. More importantly, it’s pledging to buy considerable volumes of the stuff in order to give hydrogen providers the certainty they need to invest in the supply chain.

An industrial coalition aims to deliver, including folks like major natural-gas supplier Southern California Gas, turbine maker Mitsubishi, the Green Hydrogen Coalition industry group and solar developer 174 Power Global. But, as Canary contributor Elizabeth McCarthy reports:

LADWP’s new public-private coalition project, known as HyDeal LA, faces major challenges in scaling up from a few boutique producers to assembly-line manufacturing. But if it works, it could move the needle on an industry many hope could help fully decarbonize electricity production and energy-intensive sectors ranging from transportation to industry.

McCarthy lays out the challenges of lowering the costs of hydrogen production to meet this vision. Among them:

  • Using surplus renewables to make hydrogen keeps costs down, but it doesn’t provide enough utilization to meet demand cost-effectively.
  • Transporting pure hydrogen requires building or refurbishing a pipeline network for the task.
  • Storing the flammable and escape-prone gas is costly.

It’s not just LA tackling these issues. 

  • Europe has its own HyDeal. 
  • Just this week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced its Hydrogen Shot program, which aims to cut the cost of clean hydrogen to $1 per kilogram by 2030, an 80 percent decrease from today’s levels. (It’s like the highly successful SunShot program, but less alliterative.)

In the meantime, Los Angeles plans on blending hydrogen into the gas that it burns at existing plants. That reduces emissions, but switching to a full hydrogen burn requires revamping the plants.

Are you ready to bet on either fusion or green hydrogen? Let us know on Twitter @CanaryMediaInc or shoot us an email.

(Image: Verifying nuclear fusion concept” by SandiaLabs is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.