Fusion Energy Progresses in the U.S., But Is There Enough Government Support?
The world is closer to obtaining fusion energy than ever before with progress being made each day. Although fusion is currently on the fast track to becoming commercially viable, fusion energy is not a new concept in the United States. In fact, fusion has been represented in Congress’s bills for over 40 years.
While the U.S. began researching fusion power in the 1950s, the true start of U.S. government involvement in fusion began in 1980 with the passage of the Magnetic Fusion Energy Engineering Act in the Senate. After the introduction of this bill, the United States Congress fluctuated in its financial support for fusion energy throughout the years, decreasing its funding for several years under the Reagan administration, despite President Reagan cementing his interest in creating a fusion reactor, and alternating between periods of decrease and increase in Congress’s FY budgets throughout the 1990s. Still despite the occasional setbacks, progress for fusion was made in the 20th century as evidenced by the U.S.’s involvement in the ITER project, showcasing that fusion energy holds a global solution to climate change and undiscovered potential for so much more.
In the 21st century, Congress granted the fusion community the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Fusion Energy Sciences (FES) division, INFUSE programs, funding for a multitude of research programs, and more. But with the U.K. establishing regulatory framework for fusion energy and gaining private companies like General Fusion, and China improving on their EAST reactor, it begs the question: Is the U.S. doing enough to ensure they will lead the world in the race to fusion energy? To answer this question, it is imperative that the support the U.S. gives fusion energy research is first examined.
In 2001, Representative Zoe Lofgren sponsored the Fusion Energy Sciences Act, cosponsored by five Republicans and nine Democrats Representatives, championing the power fusion energy will provide to the United States, and the world.
I am hopeful that this nation, a world leader in science research, can make fusion energy available on a large scale. Investing in fusion research has the long-term promise of giving millions of people access to an affordable and reliable energy source. We all deserve the best energy future not simply a return to the past.
Her bill outlined the steps for a burning plasma experiment, attempting to start the process of creating a commercially viable fusion power plant and advocating for federal investment for fusion research. Twenty years later, Congresswoman Lofgren joined the Fusion Energy Caucus where her support for fusion energy continues still.
Fusion was then made a part of several pieces of legislation in both the Senate and House throughout the following years, continuing to receive funding in appropriations bills and getting embedded in various science and energy bills to improve fusion’s involvement in the DOE. For instance, in 2018, Congress passed the Department of Research and Innovation Act in which the DOE was instructed to form alternative and enabling programs for fusion energy. Fusion’s incorporation in such legislation added up over time, and as of 2021, the U.S. government had invested around $30 billion in total for fusion energy research.
Congress’s support for fusion extends beyond federal investment; Congress has also included directives to benefit fusion energy in the private sector. In 2019, the Senate Appropriations Committee ordered the DOE to establish public-private partnership cost-share programs and the FES to establish the Innovation Network for Fusion Energy (INFUSE) programs to incite collaboration between national labs and private companies, a program that awarded $2.1 million for nine fusion public-private partnership projects in July of 2021.
This sentiment was echoed in the House of Representatives in which Representatives Lori Trahan and Conor Lamb introduced an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act in order to establish the Energy Act of 2020. This act directed DOE to build a new milestone-based public-private partnership program, in which public funding was contingent on the private company meeting pre-established goals. Such programs being written into law is a massive win for the fusion community, but this program alone is not enough for commercially viable fusion. Fortunately, Congress has continued to push the fusion agenda.
In May of 2021, the House of Representatives passed legislation entitled H.R. 3593: “Science for the Future Act,” a bill from the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that proposes increased funding for the FES and further authorizes new fusion projects, such as milestone-based public-private partnership programs. Additionally, this bill was marked up with an amendment in June 2021, that establishes multiple national teams with the directive to research and eventually engineer a pilot plant for fusion. Legislation such as this supports the U.S.’s development of fusion energy, but only when provided with adequate funding.
The Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee created a budget plan for FY 2022, and thankfully, fusion is represented. The House of Representative’s 2022 appropriations bill includes $45 million for fusion public-private partnerships programs as well as $698 million for FES. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman praised this funding decision, calling it “particularly important to my district” at the appropriations full committee mark-up on July 16, 2021. However, the funding for fusion in appropriations is not enough to reach fusion power at the earliest possible rate. As a result, the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) is proposing that fusion energy be included in the next infrastructure bill Congress passes.
While bills showcase the literal support for fusion energy research in America, much of this legislation would not have been possible without the help of influential congressional members willing to advocate for fusion. Virginia Congressman Don Beyer has consistently served as a voice for the fusion community in the federal government, talking about fusion at his town halls, advocating for fusion to Secretary Granholm and even introducing the amendment to the DOE “Science for the Future Act” to include more commercial viability for fusion.
In addition to constantly advocating for fusion, Congressman Beyer established the Bipartisan Congressional Fusion Caucus in February of 2021, creating a cohesive group that serves to progress fusion policy in the U.S. government. Congressman Beyer chairs this caucus of 44 members, and since their inception, this group has continuously been instrumental in pushing fusion policy to the forefront. In May, several members signed a letter to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm searching for answers on the progress of the fusion programs established in some of the aforementioned bills and advocating for fusion and its potential. In early July, Chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and member of the Fusion Caucus Eddie Bernice Johnson penned a letter to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, on the importance of funding fusion in the FY 22 appropriations bill that was to be deliberated later that month.
Perhaps most influential, on July 13, 2021, Congressman Don Beyer hosted a Fusion Caucus Briefing, inviting the caucus members as well as various senators, representatives, and their staff to participate in an hour-long presentation on fusion energy in which FIA CEO Andrew Holland, Commonwealth Fusion Systems CEO Bob Mumgaard, TAE Technologies CEO Michael Binderbauer, and General Fusion CEO Chris Mowry educated the participants on fusion energy, answering questions on the uses for fusion and its limitless potential.
While it is obvious that Congress has not ignored fusion over the past few decades, it is time for Congress to seriously invest in fusion energy research, providing substantial funding in public-private partnership cost-share programs for fusion, adding fusion to infrastructure bills, developing a clear regulatory guide for the U.S., and getting educated on fusion energy. The support the United States government has given to the fusion community over the years has been invaluable in getting the research to where it is today, but in order to make fusion attainable, in order to combat climate change and provide sustainable energy to the United States and the rest of the globe, the United States needs to do more.
In “‘Every Little Bit Matters’ Isn’t Enough for Net Zero,” a recent Forbes article from FIA’s Communications Director Melanie Windridge, she argues that combatting climate change is not attainable by small steps like turning off the lights when leaving a room. Instead, America needs to have a power that is clean, sustainable, and answers the world’s growing energy needs. Windridge states, “We need massive action…We need an energy source like fusion.” Windridge’s article emphasizes the unbeatable benefits of fusion energy, analyzing the power it has to provide clean energy for electricity, but also uncovering the versatility of fusion power, including possible uses for space exploration, shipping containers, and ways yet to even be imagined.
Fusion energy is not yet commercially viable, but with the combined investment of the private and public sector, the United States is another step closer to reaching the carbon-free economy that President Biden and experts throughout the world are calling for. The United States has long been a global leader in innovation, but other countries are closing in on the race to fusion energy. The United States can only maintain its lead with support from the federal government, with support directly from Congress. One thing is for certain, the United States needs fusion.