The world’s biggest scientific experiment is on course to become the most expensive source of surplus power. With wind-farm campaigners starting to promise subsidy-free power by 2025 and electricity demand in Europe stagnating, the future of fusion research looks bleak.
Components of the 20 billion-euro ($24 billion) project are already starting to pile up at a construction site in the south of France, where about 800 scientists plan to test whether they can harness the power that makes stars shine. Assembly of the machine will start in May. Unlike traditional nuclear plants that split atoms, the so-called ITER reactor will fuse them together at temperatures 10-times hotter than the Sun — 150 million degrees Celsius (270 million Fahrenheit).
Its startling complexity, with more than a million pieces and sponsors in 35 countries, mean questions remain about over whether the reactor will work or if it can deliver electricity at anything like the cost of more traditional forms of clean energy. With wind-farm developers starting to promise subsidy-free power by 2025 and electricity demand stagnating, even the project’s supporters are asking whether ITER will ever make sense.
“I’m dubious,” said Chris Llewellyn Smith, director of energy research at Oxford University who has spoken in favor of the research project. “The cost of wind and solar has come down so rapidly, so the competition has become harder to beat than you could have conceivably imagined a decade ago.”
ITER, short for international thermonuclear experimental reactor, was supposed to offer plentiful power from a zero-pollution source when governments started it in 2006. Now, as wind and solar farms spread, some without the help of subsidies, ITER in Provence is still decades away from proving whether its scientific theories can be put into practice.
In the decades it will take to prove itself, renewables are likely to mushroom, thanks to a 62 percent plunge in the cost of solar panels over the past five years. Wind energy has followed similar trends as turbine sizes surged, boosting the spark coming from each unit. Batteries also are spreading, reducing the need for utilities to maintain a constant “baseload” of supply that ITER would feed to the grid.
“The concept of the need for baseload generation is fading away,” said Paolo Frankl, who heads the renewable power division of the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based institution advising nations on energy. “Technically, you could run a system 100 percent on renewables and even 100 percent just wind and solar.”