Of Buck Rogers, magic elixirs and fusion power

July 11, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe future looks a whole lot less like Buck Rogers and a whole lot more like a wind-up toy.

I love string theory, that imaginative branch of theoretical physics where we consider multiple dimensions of parallel reality existing alongside ours (or even occupying the same space).

It’s just plain fun to contemplate the what ifs in the world, including that which defies our current understanding of the known physical laws of the universe. But if I spent 60 years holed up in my room slicing and dicing the air, or twisting and contorting my body in the hope that “one of these days I’ll pierce the veil,” and meet twin earth on the other side you’d probably check me in to Bellevue tout de suite.

If you ask me, that same skepticism should be applied to the community of nuclear physicists who’ve spent more than a half a century fixated on nuclear fusion and the magic bullet they believe it will one day provide.

Really do the math

This week, one of those scientists, Stewart C. Prager, the director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times that held out the elusive hope of nuclear fusion, and along with it made a plea for society to get behind such a promise with their will and a bevy of taxpayer dollars. Prager writes that

What has been lacking in the United States is the political and economic will. We need serious public investment to develop materials that can withstand the harsh fusion environment, sustain hot plasma indefinitely and integrate all these features in an experimental facility to produce continuous fusion power. This won’t be cheap. A rough estimate is that it would take $30 billion and 20 years to go from the current state of research to the first working fusion reactor.

Prager goes on to blithely equate this sum to “about a week of domestic energy consumption, or about 2 percent of the annual energy expenditure of $1.5 trillion.”

Is that all?

Pulling rabbits out of hats

What he doesn’t explain, and perhaps even consider, is that the demonstration plant is itself an energy sink. Yet in his mind, apparently there’s endless energy to ramp up not only the demo, but plants like it all over the country (once one is even able to successfully work, presumably around the year 2035) and then, then our energy problem will be solved! Technology to the rescue.

Lot’s of things look good on paper, but the trouble comes when vision meets reality. In that vein, Prager’s title, “How Seawater Can Power the World,” is disingenuous, too. Sure, you can get some hydrogen isotopes from seawater, but big deal. For what, more experiments?

I spoke with the late Matt Simmons, a key figure in oil industry finance and a significant contributor to the peak oil conversation, before his unexpected death last year, and he too was passionate about the promise of seawater. Only for him it was more about proven tidal power, which is pretty low tech when you get right down to it. That would be a better way to spend $30 billion if you’ve got your heart set on that scale of a technical fix.

Simplicity is elegance

I don’t want to be a wet blanket on the nuclear fusion dream, but, well, I have to be.

The disconnect from physical reality that not only this physicist exhibits, but that most people show when they consider how to tackle dwindling energy supplies and increasing costs, is getting too big to ignore. Our illusions are the elephant in the room marring progress on doable energy solutions, job creation, and the movement of money in our economy right now.

Wishful thinking, grand plans and the mirage of hope on every horizon is not a strategy to tackle domestic energy concerns. And, understandable long-time industry and academic interests notwithstanding, neither is the tired bromide, “All energy options need to be on the table.”

All energy options cost money. Some simply don’t belong on the table.

Research costs money, as does the ultimate development, distribution and integration of new energy providers into the infrastructure. And developing new energy ideas also takes more energy. Today, that will be the very fossil fuels that are getting costlier to find and produce.

Instead of high-tech fantasies, what’s needed are solutions available now that provide jobs, decrease demand for fossil fuels and gird against future energy shocks.

Spend that $30 billion on solar in the US and you’d have panels for more than 10 million homes. Let’s remember that it takes a lot of manpower to install solar on ten million homes. And all those paychecks buy a heckuva lot of stuff in local economies. This is a better use of that kind of money.

Castles made of sand

Whatever “solution” the magic of would-be nuclear fusion might provide, it won’t provide raw materials. It won’t provide the petroleum we chug through making our disposable water bottles and the straws we sip the water from. It won’t make cars, or pave roads, or fuel the machinery to maintain the roads, much less feed the cows that become the burgers that fuel the men who work on the roads.

That it may some day provide some portion of electricity after an immense number of plants are developed in centralized locations is just a fool’s game. It’s a money pit for the deluded, indebted and intellectually destitute.

As they say, when you’re in a hole, stop digging, though apparently Washington didn’t get that particular memo.

Distributed power or pitchforks

The “solutions” for our rapidly disintegrating future are not high-tech, energy-intensive chimeras of infinite possibility. They are small-scale, simple, distributed, and resilient.

Local-scale, moderate energy offerings like hydropower. Distributed solar. Industrial wind installations off shore and running down otherwise empty interstate medians. They are conservation, you know, lights out of the 88th floor when you go home. They are municipal utilities. Walkable areas. More bike lanes.

And if we don’t implement these medium-tech, proven energy plans soon, we might still go nuclear, alright. But not like those lab guys want. More like a raging population wondering what happened to the cable TV and the iPhone when the lights went out. And those are the kind of folks who aren’t likely to wait twenty years for a would-be demo plant. Not when their favorite show is on in an hour.

So let’s get real, please.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice

Lindsay Curren

Lindsay Curren is Editor-in-Chief of Transition Voice, the online magazine on peak oil. She also writes Lindsay's List, the women's conservation blog. She's the co-founder of Transition Staunton Augusta for which she leads a community garden. Lindsay is the mother of two daughters.

Tags: Electricity, Energy Infrastructure, Marine Energy, Nuclear, Photovoltaic, Renewable Energy, Solar Energy, Tidal Energy