Are fusion power plants coming too late?

Today the world covers more than 90 per cent of its energy requirements with fossil sources, viz. coal, mineral oil and gas. The International Energy Agency anticipates an increase in fossil energy production in the next 20 years. The share of renewable energies can just slowly increase world-wide, even with a major boost. Even in the year 2050 numerous fossil power plants will therefore still be in operation, which can be replaced by ecologically suitable fusion power plants without having to change the power system.

If fusion can realise its favourable environmental properties, it could become one of the pillars of sustainable energy supply with its almost inexhaustible fuel reservoir. With about 1500 megawatts of electric power, fusion power plants would primarily provide the base load in the supply system of the future. This would let them be incorporated in the grid system of the power supply like today’s large-scale power plants. Fusion power plants would also have their place in a power economy strongly dominated by renewable energy resources – as a buffer for wind and solar power plants, which are dependent on the weather. They could also be used for producing hydrogen.

A study on development of the European energy market as of 2050 shows that fusion as a new and comparatively capital-intensive technology can enter the European market if the emission of the greenhouse gas, carbon-dioxide, can be distinctly reduced. Fusion could then cover about 20 to 30 per cent of Europe’s power requirements (Lako et al., Long-term scenarios and the role of fusion power, ECN-C--01-053, Energieonderzoek Centrum Nederland (ECN), (.pdf 890 kB)).

The significance of the fusion option is primarily manifested in the global perspective: In countries with rapidly growing economic activity, such as India and China, it is mainly coal power plants that are planned for the next few decades. The plant and infrastructure are designed for lifetimes of about 40 years – this is the time when the first demonstration fusion power plants with their novel power production method are to start.

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