The viability of fusion energy might boil down to dollars and cents

Written by
Colton Poore, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
March 27, 2023

Beyond the engineering and technological challenges, new research from Princeton finds that the economics of power supply will play a key role in shaping fusion's energy future in the U.S. Fusion energy is often hailed as a potential source of limitless clean energy, but competition from other clean electricity sources may make it tough to commercialize. 

“People will not pay an unlimited amount of money for fusion energy if they could spend that money to generate clean energy more cost-effectively,” said Jacob Schwartz, a research physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. 

The research, recently published in Joule, modeled the cost targets that a fusion reactor might have to meet to gain traction in a future U.S. energy grid. It also demonstrated that the niche for fusion in the U.S. depends not only on the price of building a reactor but hinges greatly on the energy mix of the future grid and the cost of competing technologies like nuclear fission, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, or long-duration battery storage. 

“This research doesn’t claim to know when fusion will come online. Fusion reactors may still be decades away from having a large impact on the energy grid. What this research gives us is a clear (cost) target for fusion researchers and startups to aim for when they do come online,” said Egemen Kolemen, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. “The end goal of fusion research is to provide some value to the U.S. and the grid. Now, we actually have some numbers to guide us.”

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