Thanks To AI, Fusion Is Here

Todd Moses
June 21, 2024

Microsoft expects to harness fusion by 2028, an audacious claim that bolsters their promises to transition to green energy but distracts from current reality.

Inputs that matter: Sam Altman has invested $375 million in Helion Energy, the fusion provider contracted by Microsoft.

  • "This first fusion power plant, for which the feasibility is being assessed in Chelan (County), will produce electricity that will go to the grid; Constellation will serve as the Power Marketer for Helion's first customer, Microsoft," explains Jessie Barton, Helion communications director.
  • "If we work together, we can unlock AI's game-changing abilities to help create the net zero, climate resilient, and nature positive works that we so urgently need," Microsoft said in a statement.
  • The company said, "By 2030, we will have 100% of our electricity consumption, 100% of the time, matched by zero-carbon energy purchases."

The opportunity: According to the International Energy Agency, a ChatGPT-powered Google search consumes almost ten times the amount of electricity as a traditional search.

  • "You would be talking about the size of a country like the Netherlands regarding electricity consumption," Dutch scientist Alex De Vries told the BBC.
  • ChatGPT alone uses half a million kilowatt-hours per day.
  • One significant data center complex in Iowa owned by Meta burns the annual equivalent amount of power as 7 million laptops running eight hours every day, based on data shared publicly by the company.

Zoom in: "This is very quickly becoming an issue of, don't get left behind locking down the power you need, and you can figure out the climate issues later," said Aaron Zubaty, CEO of Texas-based Eolian, a significant developer of clean energy projects.

  • "Ability to find power right now will determine the winners and losers in the AI arms race."
  • A spike in tech-related energy needs in Georgia moved regulators in April to green-light an expansion of fossil fuel use, including purchasing power from Mississippi, which will delay the closure of a half-century-old coal plant there.
  • In Omaha, where Google and Meta recently set up sprawling data center operations, the local utility has scrapped plans to install large batteries to store solar power.

Between the lines: Amazon has been "the world's largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy for four straight years."

  • While solar power has made the U.S. power-generating system greener, it has also made it more volatile, especially in California's top solar market.
  • Peak solar power generation coincides with the lowest residential electricity demand during the midday.
  • To cope with the natural and weather-dependent solar power, the grid needs much more battery storage than currently available to smooth out the difference in peak output and demand and the significant power price variations.
  • Power systems and grid operators must often manage negative prices when solar output peaks during the day.

Follow the money: In fact, AI's voracious electricity consumption is driving an expansion of fossil fuel use, including delaying the retirement of some coal-fired plants.

  • However, AI is already being harnessed to make the power grid smarter, speed up the innovation of new nuclear technologies, and track emissions.

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