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This is the first installment of a three-part interview
Fusion power is moving out of government-run science labs into the private sector. Catalyzed by the public-private partnership methods which created the commercial space industry, fusion startups are attracting increasing interest among investors and accelerating the race to commercial fusion power.
In an exclusive interview, Andrew Holland, director of the Fusion Industry Association, spoke to Asia Times’ Jonathan Tennenbaum about the genesis of the commercial fusion power industry and the FIA’s work in its promotion.
Jonathan Tennenbaum: How did the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) come to exist, and what goals is it pursuing?
Andrew Holland: The Fusion Industry Association officially went public just a little over two years ago, in October 2018, as the organization representing the private fusion companies.
Our members are the companies that are working to commercialize fusion power in one way or another. For the most part, they are doing this to build a fusion power plant that will generate electricity and sell that electricity onto the power grid.
There are some others that have alternative business pathways, but all of the member companies have to have raised the private capital and have a pathway to make money. We have 22 member companies and we also have affiliate members; these are the companies that are going to become the fusion energy economy.
These are everything from part suppliers, to engineering design and build companies, to law firms and NGOs in support of fusion power.
JT: So you will have the whole fusion power supply chain?
AH: Correct. The idea is that we are at the birth right now of fusion moving out of the lab and into the private sector, into a world where fusion power is on the grid. And the companies that will be leading that are coming around now.
JT: Could you say a couple of words about yourself? As I understand you assisted at the birth of the Fusion Industry Association.
AH: That’s right. I’ve been the director since it began. I worked at Capitol Hill in the Senate doing energy and environmental policy. After my boss [Senator Chuck Hagel] retired, I moved on to the think tank world where I eventually landed in the American Security Project, a national security think tank. I’m still there as the chief operating officer as well.
In my role in the American Security Project, we got interested in fusion power because we wanted to find something that was going to be the ultimate long-range goal.
I wrote a paper in 2013 that gave an outline of what would be an Apollo program for fusion. If the US government wanted to make a big investment in fusion power, akin to the Moon landing or the Manhattan Project, what would it look like, both in terms of dollars and in terms of leadership and direction?
In my involvement with that, I got to know a lot of the folks in the fusion community. Private fusion companies were being developed and growing. An important milestone was the ARPA-E ALPHA Fusion program, started in 2015. It was a three-year project. [ALPHA is an acronym for Accelerating Low-Cost Plasma Heating and Assembly]
Many of our member companies actually have their genesis in that time.
JT: Was this a hardware or a software-type project, so-to-speak? What was the aim?
AH: It was hard, real science. Things were built, results were published.
It was 30 million dollars over three years spread among 10 different grants, such as investment in a partnership with Los Alamos National Lab that would lead to the HyperJet Fusion Corporation, one of our companies, and investments into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of Washington which led to our member company Zap Energy.
A lot of these programs showed interest from the private sector and showed a pathway forward. And notably, the conference that they held every year had become a de-facto gathering place for everybody interested in private fusion. As the program was ending after three years, they said: this forum has been really useful.
So they said, wouldn’t it be good to continue this? And they said, essentially: “Andrew, you’re the only one who knows all of us and isn’t affiliated with one of us, and we all trust you, could you help set this up?” So the genesis of the Fusion Industry Association was from the ARPA-E program.
Since we started, we’ve grown from 15 member companies to 22 members, and the number is growing. The companies and the amount of money invested in them are growing.
JT: Is the FIA open to membership internationally?
AH: Yes. The requirements are that you have a business plan that will lead to fusion power and that you’ve raised private capital.
JT: The giant appropriations bill which recently passed Congress and was signed by Trump included an amendment on support for fusion energy. How did this come about?
AH: Years of work! Since we came in 2018, our member companies and our association have been advocating for increased public-private partnerships, between the US government – and governments around the world – and our companies. We have been talking about the need for leadership on this and how American investment can really drive a growing industry in the United States.
We pushed for this with members of Congress, with senior leadership in the Department of Energy, with stakeholders around the US government in Washington, around the country and around the world. A piece of legislation like this doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
This is the first of a three-part interview. Check Asia Times regularly for the next installment.