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The case for funding fusion

Digital technologies have disrupted the structure of markets with unprecedented breadth and scale. Today, there is yet another wave of innovation emerging, and that is the decarbonization of the global economy.

While governments still lack the conviction necessary to truly fight the climate crisis, the overall direction is clear. The carbon price in Europe rose from below $10 to over $50 per ton. Shell was handed a resounding defeat by a Dutch court. The major blackout in Texas at the beginning of the year revealed the fragility of the existing energy supply even in a highly industrialized country. We must urgently invest more into developing and deploying reliable, clean electricity generation technologies to make decarbonization a reality.

Forward-thinking investors understand this. Global investment in low-carbon technologies climbed to $500 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg. Renewable energy accounted for around $300 billion of that, followed by electrification of transport ($140 billion) and heating ($50 billion).

However, we remain far from the finish line. According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions of CO2 this year are set to jump 1.5 billion tons over 2020 levels. And more than 80% of global energy consumption is still made up of coal, oil and gas.

Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity.

That’s why we need to continue backing new technologies with breakthrough potential. Of particular promise is nuclear fusion. Fusion, the process that powers the stars, could be the cleanest energy source for humanity. We are already indirectly harvesting the power of fusion through solar energy. Being able to build fusion reactors would give us an “always on” version, independent of weather conditions.

But why fund fusion at all, given that we don’t yet know how to do it? First, this isn’t an either-or proposition. We can afford to build out renewable energy and investigate new forms of energy production at the same time because the latter — at least at this early stage of development — will require a comparatively trivial amount of money. The U.S. government’s latest plan is to spend $174 billion over 10 years on the electrification of car transport alone, so to invest $2 billion to create a fusion power plant seems doable.

Second, we are about to need a lot more electricity than we ever have. The global demand for carbon-free energy sources is set to triple by 2050, driven by increasing urbanization, the electrification of industrial processes, the loss of biodiversity and the increase in energy consumption in emerging markets.

Third, there’s been tremendous progress in the necessary supporting technologies. Superconducting magnets for the magnetic-confinement approach to fusion have become much cheaper, lasers for inertial confinement fusion have become much more powerful, and breakthroughs in material science have made nanostructured targets available, which enable the use of completely new approaches to fusion, such as the low-neutronic fuel pB11.

Thankfully, there is a growing number of entrepreneurial efforts from world-class teams to try and build fusion. At least 25 startups around the world are targeting fusion right now, approaching the problem with a wide range of technologies. The amount invested in private fusion companies across the world increased tenfold to almost $1 billion in 2020, according to Crunchbase.

The upside of successful fusion is nearly unlimited. The clean energy generation market represents a trillion-dollar opportunity. An estimated 26 TW of primary energy capacity needs to be built globally from 2030 to 2050 to serve the rising global energy needs, according to Materials Research Society. Just 1 TW of capacity will generate $300 billion in revenue, and a 15% market share from 2030 to 2050 would yield more than $1 trillion in annual revenue.

We need many shots on goal here, which is why Susan Danziger and I have personally invested in three different fusion startups already (Zap Energy and Avalanche in the United States and Marvel Fusion in Germany).

But it is not primarily the potential for financial upside that motivates us: There is an opportunity to make an indelible difference in the trajectory of human history. If even a small fraction of the large wealth accumulated by entrepreneurs and investors in the last couple of decades is invested here, the likelihood of successful fusion rises dramatically. That, in turn, will unlock much more investment from both venture funds and governments.

Now is the time to go all-in on decarbonization. Funding fusion with its breakthrough potential must be part of that effort.

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