Fusion energy has long been touted as a potential solution to the world’s energy crisis, offering a virtually unlimited and climate-friendly supply of power. However, the cost of building and operating fusion power plants has long been seen as a major obstacle to making it a commercially viable energy source. Now, a new economic analysis by researchers at Princeton University suggests that the cost of fusion energy could be competitive with fossil fuels and other forms of clean energy if new technical developments are achieved.
The Princeton researchers created an economic model that examined how different technological advances could affect the cost of fusion energy. They found that fusion would need to cost around $2.50 per watt of electricity to compete with other forms of electricity generation. That’s similar to the cost of building some new natural gas-fired power plants today. However, in order to reach that price point, a number of technical innovations would be required, such as building more compact and efficient fusion reactors and developing better materials for the reactors’ components.
While fusion plants will be expensive to build, the fuel will be extremely cheap. Plus, a lower risk of accidents and less high-level radioactive waste should mean a reprieve from expensive regulations that have driven up costs for fission plants. However, some fusion energy companies believe they can hit the $2.50 per watt target sooner than others. Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE Technologies, which uses boron as fuel alongside hydrogen, thinks his design could be cheaper than fission and renewables.
Bob Mumgaard, the CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinoff, claims that his tokamak reactor designs can smash those cost requirements. CFS is building a scaled-down prototype of its fusion design in Massachusetts that will include most of the components required of a working plant.
Nicholas Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, an inertial fusion company, published his own economic analysis for fusion power in 2020 and found that the biggest drivers of cost were not in the fusion chamber and its unusual materials, but in the capacitors and turbines any power plant needs. He expects a slower ramp-up than some of his colleagues. “The first plants are going to break all the time,” he says, and the industry will require significant government support.
While fusion energy may still be a long way from commercial viability, the Princeton research marks a significant step towards making it a reality. The cost of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power has fallen drastically in recent years, making them increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. If the cost of fusion can be brought down in a similar fashion, it could play a vital role in helping to combat climate change and provide a stable source of energy for the world’s population.