Will fusion come too late? Won’t other technologies already have a stranglehold on the energy market? Or will fusion make a viable contribution to the energy market? These are the important considerations that EFDA’s socio-economic research into fusion (SERF) project addresses.

In an enormous undertaking, SERF, in collaboration of researchers from nine European organisations, has set up a computer model called the EFDA Times model. This model provides the optimum energy system composition, in terms of social worth and sustainibility at the minimum cost until the year 2100. And, happily for JET and ITER, the conclusion is yes, it’s worth the effort. Results presented at the European Energy Conference in April 2012 by Dr Helena Cabal, a senior researcher at CIEMAT in Spain, suggest that by the year 2100, fusion could account for 36% of the electricity market worldwide, more than any other technology.

Global electricity supply until the year 2100, assuming a 450 ppm carbon dioxide limit, from the EFDA Times model. H Cabal et al European energy conference 2012

Global electricity supply until the year 2100, assuming a 450 ppm carbon dioxide limit, from the EFDA Times model. H. Cabal et al, European Energy Conference, 2012

EFDA Times models current and future production technologies across all of the world’s energy markets, and also includes a number of possible fusion power plant designs. Although the model projects as far ahead as 2100, it shows good agreement with other international models results for the next forty years.

As with any model, the results are based on many assumptions – and if these assumptions change then so does the projected energy mix. Nonetheless the figure of about one third of the market for fusion is quite robust, and appears in a number of scenarios with different carbon targets. However there is one scenario in which fusion is not feasible – the case where the world does not take any action to abate carbon dioxide production. Not surprisingly, in this scenario, the existing fossil technologies, especially coal, dominate the market.

Assuming that the world’s governments do take action on climate change, the contribution of coal and other fossil fuels becomes much smaller, and the global energy supply is divided among a number of technologies. In this example, fusion’s 36% is the largest contribution to the market in 2100 – at over 100 exajoules about double the current global energy output. The remainder of the supply is provided by renewables, hydro and nuclear fission, with 20-30% each.

The model is based on five demand sectors across six time slices in fifteen geographical regions, including the trade between them, and allows for different growth and taxation models and energy demand drivers. Certain scenarios show that fusion’s distribution throughout the world may not be even, for example in some cases renewable technologies seem to be more competitive in Central and South America.

Whichever scenario you choose, the general conclusion remains: fusion is the not the silver bullet for the 21st century’s energy needs, however it does have a substantial role in our future. It seems our grandchildren might look back on JET and ITER as some of the most important experiments ever, after all.