White House summit brings national energy leaders together to forge a path to accelerate fusion electricity

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
March 21, 2022

Climate and energy experts from national laboratories, universities, private industry, government agencies, and congressional representatives gathered together on March 17 at the White House summit, “Developing a Bold Decadal Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy,” organized by the Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). It was the first step in a Biden-Harris administration initiative to accelerate commercial fusion energy, a clean energy technology that uses the same reaction that powers the Sun and stars.

“We are deeply mindful of the long arc of history, how government can come together and make long-term plays that have tremendous benefit for the country down the line; as the President says we can do big things,” said Alondra Nelson, head of OSTP. “I hope we can all be back here together in a decade to celebrate the star power we’ve ignited with these conversations today.”  

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm announced a plan to provide up to $50 million to support U.S. scientists conducting experimental research in fusion energy science in the U.S.

Granholm also announced the appointment of Scott Hsu to a new position as lead fusion coordinator at the DOE. Currently the program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA‑E) Hsu earned a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University and was a National Undergraduate Fellow at PPPL.

Steve Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), was among the select group of national leaders attending the summit. Cowley participated on a panel titled, “Status and Benefits of Fusion” that emphasized that accelerating fusion energy to create a carbonless source of electricity will take a concerted effort by national laboratories, universities, and private industry. Panelists agreed that the U.S. is poised to develop a fusion energy pilot plant, the next crucial step outlined by a recent National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report. “To get to commercial fusion, we have a lot to do, but we have the tools to do it,” Cowley said. “We understand how to make a plasma at 100 million degrees and how to hold it and that is an intellectual triumph that will drive us through to commercial fusion.”

“What a thrill to be here when the U.S. is launching a push to make the first fusion electricity,” Cowley said after the summit. “That’s what we came to this field for and that’s what we ‘re going to deliver.”

Gina McCarthy, the national climate advisor, focused her comments on climate change. “I’m glad to be here at the launch of what could be another American clean energy game changer: fusion energy,” she said. “Fusion energy could provide a virtually limitless source of clean electricity available when and where it’s needed. Getting fusion energy to viability could be a critical tool to reducing emissions while meeting our clean energy needs and of course we could create really good jobs in the process.”

Environmental justice, diversity and inclusion a major theme

Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said those leading the development of fusion energy must consider how underprivileged and underserved communities will be affected by the new technology. “It’s exciting today to talk about a whole new industry that you and others are poised to create and right at the beginning ask the question, ‘How can we ensure all communities benefit from the transformational change we hope to spur on today?’” she said.  

That question was one of the themes of a panel titled, “Energy Justice and Public Engagement,” that included Amelia Chambliss, a recent U.S. DOE Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) student at PPPL (see sidebar), participated. She and other panelists agreed that energy justice, diversity and inclusion and outreach should be top priorities for the fusion energy and plasma physics fields.

Stephanie Diem, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering-Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the co-leader of the U.S. Fusion Outreach Committee, along with PPPL’s Arturo Dominguez, head of Science Education, noted that a new U.S. Fusion Energy website is aimed at providing accessible information about fusion energy.  

Diem stressed the importance of including the community in discussions about fusion energy. “We need to have more meaningful and respectful two-way conversations that are inclusive, and we need to have space to work together and we need to be honest about what we’re doing,” Diem said.

Panelists on a third panel titled, “Fusion Energy Vision,” which featured leaders from fusion energy companies, said they feel optimistic about accelerating fusion energy. “The government investment and the government publicity will act as a magnetic force throughout the world,” said Andrew Holland, chief executive officer of the Fusion Industry Association. 

Geraldine Richmond, DOE undersecretary for science and innovation, gave closing remarks. Richmond said the fusion energy effort in the DOE will be agency-wide and will include the Office of Science, ARPA-E, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Office of Nuclear Energy. “We will continue to rely on the top minds at the DOE laboratories for ideas,” she said. “DOE will help clear the path toward commercialization whatever way we can.” 

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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