Exciting Innovations in the Energy Evolution

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Wisconsin was at the forefront of renewable energy long before it was cool. The nation’s first hydropower plant opened in Appleton on the Fox River back in 1882. Water-fueled power then became the world’s biggest source of clean energy, back when no one was even talking about climate change.

While many see the Badger State as synonymous with beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers, some believe the evolution in the energy sector will add more prestige to our profile.

“What Detroit was to the automobile industry in the 1950s, what Houston is to the oil and gas industry today, we’d like to see Wisconsin be that global hub for the fusion industry in the 21st century,” Kieran Furlong, cofounder and CEO of Madison-based Realta Fusion said during testimony before a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Committees on Energy, Utilities, and Technology in February.

Furlong was one of four speakers at the hearing who brought exciting new insight on what powering the world could look like in the near future, beyond the common options of wind and solar, natural gas and coal, which we know have their own challenges.

Energy innovators provided testimony before a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Committees on Energy, Utilities, and Technology in February.

Fusion Energy

Furlong’s company, Realta Fusion, is an early-stage fusion company and one of at least 40 in the nation seeking to bring the latest advances in fusion energy to the commercial marketplace. Unlike nuclear fission, the process traditional nuclear plants use, which releases energy by splitting heavy atoms, fusion unleashes massive amounts of energy by combining or fusing atomic nuclei together. The process has been in development for decades, but researchers have never been able to get out more energy than they put in until now.

Kieran Furlong, Realta Fusion

“So, what is fusion energy? Fusion is what powers the universe. The sun and all other stars are giant fusion reactors, balls of plasma generating the energy that we see and feel as sunlight,” Furlong said.

He explained that Realta’s process combines two varieties of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, to produce helium and very energetic neutrons. “We’ll capture the energy from those neutrons, which we can then provide as heat for an industrial process or to a steam turbine to generate electricity,” he said, adding that with this process, a 16-ounce cup could hold enough energy to power 150 homes for a year. Better yet—it’s both clean AND reliable, and the process does not create the spent fuel concern that traditional nuclear energy does.

“The waste product from the fusion reaction is helium gas, so there’s no long-lived spent nuclear fuel that we have to worry about dealing with and no possibility of a runaway reaction. In fact, the challenge with fusion is getting the reaction to go at all. But that’s where a lot of the progress has been made in recent years.”

There’s been an explosion of startup activity in this field, and Wisconsin is at the forefront. Of the 40 U.S. companies seeking to develop nuclear fusion, three are in southern Wisconsin—Realta Fusion, Type One Energy Group in Madison, and Shine Technologies out of Janesville. The Department of Energy recently selected just eight companies as recipients of its milestone-based fusion development program, including both Realta and Type One, who were awarded a total of $46 million to advance nuclear fusion technology.

Furlong says Wisconsin’s wealth of experience in precision manufacturing combined with “homegrown” fusion technology developed from UW-Madison’s leading research programs creates a world-class combination. His company has begun the site selection process for the next phase of nuclear fusion and expects to grow its staff from eight to 500 employees within the next five years.

Furlong and his associate, Jay Anderson, discuss fusion technology on the Wisconsin High-temperature-superconducting Axisymmetric Mirror (WHAM).

“I believe that 21st-century energy demand will be supplied by fusion energy. This will be an energy market worth trillions of dollars, and supplying the technology and hardware for fusion power plants will, in turn, create markets worth billions of dollars per year. This is a huge opportunity for Wisconsin,” he said, adding that he expects we will have commercial nuclear fusion in operation in the United States in the mid-2030s.

Small Modular Reactors

The traditional process of nuclear fission is making strides of its own. Ben Reinke, vice president of global business development for X-energy, also presented to the joint commission about the progress made in small modular reactors (SMRs) technology. Unlike large-scale plants, which are built with the capacity to power 800,000 homes or more, SMRs are called down to “bite-size,” making them more affordable, able to operate in a smaller footprint, and, according to their research, highly efficient.

But the new technology, which X-energy has invested $600 million into, goes beyond the downsizing. The SMRs can cool down without human intervention, and the power process allows the energy to “recycle” itself without shutting down for refueling and ensuring the highest efficiency possible. Reinke explained that they can control output by simply adjusting the helium circulators up or down.

“Our primary mechanism for changing reactor power is actually just turning off the coolant, which is something that you would never think of doing with today’s technologies,” he said. “What that means is that you’re able to go from 40% power to 100% power in 12 minutes.”

Another benefit is that these smaller reactors can be built off-site and easily transported, reducing construction timelines and costs significantly.

Like nuclear fusion, the race is on to get SMRs into the commercial market, basically, to start generating and selling electricity. Reinke says X-energy is working with Dow Chemicals to deploy what he expects will be the first SMRs in the United States at a plant in Houston, likely by the end of the decade. China, however, is currently finalizing construction of what will be the world’s first commercial SMR and expects to build up to ten per year going forward.

In Wisconsin, Dairyland Power Cooperative took the first steps toward adding SMRs to its power mix when it signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with another developer, NuScale Power, in February of 2022.

Carbon-Neutral Biofuels

Another Wisconsin company paving the way for a new kind of renewable energy is Virent Inc., which is also out of Madison. Company President David Kettner explained how Virent has developed and patented a process called bio-forming, which transforms land-based feedstocks into sustainable fuels using plant-based sugar instead of crude oil.

Workers look over equipment at the Virent biogasoline demonstration plant.

“The fuels and chemicals made from bio-forming are drop-in replacements for those made from petroleum, meaning they are virtually identical. And can be used in existing engines and infrastructure without modification,” Kettner said.

“So, for a layperson, what takes the earth 300 million years to produce, you’re able to refine it and do it in 30 days in your lab?” Representative David Steffen (R-Green Bay) asked Kettner.

“That is correct,” Kettner answered.

In November 2023, Kettner said Virent’s sustainable aviation fuel, which he called “the world’s first 100% renewable fuel,” made history when it powered a flight that crossed the Atlantic.

“Overall, our process has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint for such fuels and products to net zero or even lower when considering the sequestration of carbon as well as the ability to use renewable natural gas,” Kettner said.

Kettner credited the University of Wisconsin’s universities and colleges with leading the way in developing new technologies applicable to the energy sector. He said a technology campus focused solely on renewable energy “would be a game-changer for the industry and a unique opportunity to not only advance Wisconsin-based discoveries but also attract and grow other technologies.”

“In my experience working with other companies and states across the U.S. and also internationally, the state of Wisconsin is well positioned to be a leader in the energy evolution,” he said.

Clean Hydrogen

Another potential clean energy source looking to step into the clean energy limelight is hydrogen, the most abundant chemical on earth. Clean or “green” hydrogen is produced by using electricity to split the hydrogen from water molecules. Hydrogen does not contain carbon, so the process does not release carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. It’s clean and abundant, but it has historically been too expensive to be a feasible power source since it uses so much electricity in the process.

Not unlike other emerging technologies, the potential for hydrogen as energy is propelled by historic government investments driving the clean energy transition, and the Department of Energy has indicated it is committed to making hydrogen a cost-competitive energy solution within the next decade.

Jeffery Preece, research and development director of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), told the joint committee that he believes interesting scenarios could play out for hydrogen in Wisconsin due to the availability of low-cost renewables, such as wind. The biggest debate over developing hydrogen as power is over the source that generates the high amount of electricity needed to make it.

“The system costs of these technologies aren’t ready for curtailment right now. Could they be in the next decade? You know, certainly, society should probably hope so because we need as many technology options on the table as possible, he said, adding, “Where electrification is not a potential solution to decarbonize, we’re likely going to need low carbon fuels, hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels, biofuels and the enabling technologies like carbon capture and storage that can enable their use and deployment across the energy system.”

The clean energy transition is a complex and costly venture, but it also offers opportunities to make a change for the better and build a new legacy in the Badger State, like they did the day the nation’s first hydropower plant went into service.

As Furlong said, “Let’s have another ‘energy first’ here in Wisconsin and use it as the foundation stone to build an entire new industry that will provide employment and economic opportunity for future generations here in our state.”—Julie Lund

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