For over a century, power plants have been regarded almost as a necessary evil, a burden for the environment, but a boon for mankind. Today, we view the stereotypical images of polluting power stations with a tacit acceptance. It is what it is, and it's what it always will be.
But imagine, in a few short decades these images can be purged from the American psyche. What was thought to be an indelible stain on our environment washed away with the tide of new, futuristic power plants shining like beacons of hope, symbols for a promising future.
It's high time that politicians, and indeed all Americans, recognize that a new dawn for American-made power may soon be at hand. And it won't come from coal, wind, solar, or even natural gas. It will come from fusion energy, the power of the stars.
Believe it or not, America is nearing the threshold of a fusion future. By the end of 2012, scientists at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California plan to fire the most powerful laser ever constructed into a small chamber with pea-sized fuel pellets inside. The fusion fuel contained within the pellets, two isotopes of hydrogen -- deuterium and tritium -- will fuse together, producing helium, a free neutron, and massive amounts of energy in the form of heat. If all goes to plan, about ten to one hundred times more energy than the amount used to ignite the fuel will be unleashed.
With this monumental breakthrough achieved, construction could begin on a fusion power plant capable of producing 400 megawatts of base-load power, with a target completion date in the early 2020s. Capital costs would roughly be the same as a current nuclear fission power plant, between $6 and $7 billion. It's a daunting cost to be sure, but one well worth funding. Besides providing a blueprint for future fusion plants, investment in such a facility will drive innovation in multitudes of fields ranging from optics to materials science.
After the completion of the fusion test plant, construction of commercial facilities producing between 1,000 and 1,500 megawatts of fusion power can get underway. These power plants will produce electricity that's hard to find fault with. The energy will be base-load -- always available. It will be clean -- there will be no carbon dioxide emissions or hazardous waste. It will be cheap -- early estimates show fusion power to be cost-competitive with coal, even without a carbon tax. It will be nearly limitless -- up to 30 million years of fusion fuel exists on Earth. And most importantly, it will be made in America -- Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) has been produced entirely within the United States.
The Transition to Star Power
In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to impose new limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The rules require that any new power plant emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. This drew the ire of many because it makes it very difficult, almost impossible, to construct any new coal power plants. An attempt by Senate Republicans to overturn the measure were just thwarted yesterday.
Instead of fighting this change, Americans should embrace it with open arms. Today, coal accounts for a little over 40 percent of the nation's electricity production, a significant amount. But coal is an antiquated energy source, and so are the power plants that provide it. The average coal power plant is 43 years old, and virtually the entire U.S. fleet is set to be retired by 2060. The solution to this potential energy crisis is not to construct new plants burning fossil fuels, nor is it to install undependable renewable energy technologies. The answer is to invest in a fusion future.