Could Trump Bet Big On Nuclear Fusion?

It’s been a guessing game since Election Day about what Trump will do on climate change and renewable energy.  Some renewable advocates believe the bipartisan support for solar and wind will inoculate current federal tax credits from getting rolled back.  Others believe that the tax credits will be vulnerable in the event of a big congressional overhaul of the tax code.  Meanwhile, Trump has surrounded himself with climate science deniers and oil-and-gas tycoons.

But one “clean” energy technology might get favored treatment: nuclear fusion.

Why?  One of Trump’s most ardent backers, Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, is a big proponent and investor, as Bloomberg News reports:

Nuclear fusion, which would harness the power of the sun without all the nasty byproducts, is a long-shot—politically, financially, and technologically. Despite relative ambivalence toward fusion by the Obama administration, research has continued apace internationally, and in the American public and private sector. At the head of this pack are venture capitalists like Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention and is said to be working on the Trump transition team. He has funded a fusion start-up called Helion Energy through his Mithril Capital Management to pursue the ultimate dream of environmentalists the world over.

Fusion has sounded interesting on paper but has never materialized as a practical option.  Of course, solar panels used to be prohibitively expensive and impractical until government incentives and pro-manufacturing policies spurred the necessary investment to bring costs down.  Thiel’s company is hoping for the same dynamic with fusion:

Helion hopes to make a fusion generator that’s 1,000 times smaller, 500 times cheaper, and 10 times faster than more conventional, massive projects, according to its website. The company is building a “magneto-inertial fusion” generator. It produces power by injecting heated hydrogen and helium at high speed (a million miles an hour) into a “burn chamber,” where a strong magnetic field compresses the plasma to a temperature high enough to initiate fusion. Energy from the reaction is used to generate electricity.

Meanwhile, a potential ally, pro-nuclear environmentalist Ted Nordhaus, is causing a stir with a post arguing that the clean energy industry shouldn’t rush to deal with the Trump Administration given its authoritarian leanings, even if it pursues policies in their interests:

Trump campaigned and won the election fair and square. He has every right to pursue his agenda and vision for the country. When and if it becomes clear that democratic norms will prevail in the new Administration, that Trump does not intend to prosecute his political opponents, squelch dissent, and harass the free press, I will happily praise the Administration when it takes actions that I believe to be consistent with health, prosperity, equity, and environmental protection, and criticize it when it does not.

But the signals have thus far been mixed and that presents complicated decisions for those of us in think tanks, advocacy organizations, and the media. Most of our professional incentives are to act as if some version of normal democratic discourse and policy-making will prevail. There is not much for us to do, at least in the normal way that advocates advocate and analysts analyze, in the event that those norms do not prevail. The risk for all of us is that in our haste to get back to normal politics and advocacy, we normalize a dangerous turn toward authoritarianism.

Lots to chew on for an industry (one of many) now facing complicated and challenging times.


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