Weekly Dose of Optimism #24
Fusion Ignition, Renewables Reforecast, Stripe Frontier Q&A, Techno-optimist brothers
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome to our 24th Weekly Dose of Optimism. This will be our final Weekly Dose of 2022 as we take some time off to refresh over the holiday. 2022 has been a year of ups and downs (although, the same could be said of literally every year ever), but we’re glad that this last edition of the year is filled with some pretty massive ups.
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Let’s get to it.
From The Department of Energy
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) today announced the achievement of fusion ignition at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)—a major scientific breakthrough decades in the making that will pave the way for advancements in national defense and the future of clean power. On December 5, a team at LLNL’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history to reach this milestone, also known as scientific energy breakeven, meaning it produced more energy from fusion than the laser energy used to drive it.
Fusion ignition! We’ve been able to create nuclear fusion for a while now, but this is the first ever recorded positive net energy reaction from nuclear fusion. This reaction had a Q factor of 1.5. Q>1 has been the holy grail of nuclear fusion for decades — it means you get more energy from a reaction than you put into it. Previously, nuclear fusion was great and all, but it wasn’t a viable source of clean energy when you put in Q and get back Q-1. It didn’t scale, but now it might.
Scaling and commercializing Q>1 nuclear fusion is likely the most realistic path towards living in a world of free, clean, and abundant energy for centuries to come. For a full primer on fusion and the importance of this Q>1 achievement, we recommend reading Lowercarbon Capital’s announcement of its $250M fund dedicated to nuclear fusion. Turns out that Sacca guy knows what he’s doing with this whole investing thing.
(2) Renewables 2022
From the International Energy Agency
Renewables become the largest source of global electricity generation by early 2025, surpassing coal. Their share of the power mix is forecast to increase by 10 percentage points over the forecast period, reaching 38% in 2027. Renewables are the only electricity generation source whose share is expected to grow, with declining shares for coal, natural gas, nuclear and oil generation. Electricity from wind and solar PV more than doubles in the next five years, providing almost 20% of global power generation in 2027.
Commercializing and scaling nuclear fusion is likely at least a decade or so out, and in the meantime, we’ll be relying on renewable energy to get us to a cleaner energy economy. The IEA issued a report forecasting that renewables will be the largest source of electricity globally by 2025. This latest report reflects an upwards revision on renewables, which are growing share much faster than expected just even a year ago.
Driving this change is faster than expected adoption of renewables from China, the EU, the US, and India which are all quickly implementing and introducing policies in reaction to the energy crisis. The other major drivers are solar (which, thanks to learning curves, has become an economically feasible energy source in the last few years) and wind (which is expected to grow more linearly over the coming years).
It’s tough to look at both the nuclear fusion breakthrough and the IEA renewables report and not be optimistic that we may just figure out this whole energy/climate thing sooner than most people would have thought just a few years ago. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Q: What is carbon removal and why is it important?
A: Humans emit about 50 billion tons of CO₂-equivalents every year. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to get global emissions to net zero emissions by 2050. That means broadly doing two things.
First: radically reducing the amount of CO₂ we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year.
Second: permanently removing huge amounts of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and ocean. Carbon removal is important both because it’s unlikely we’ll be able to fully eliminate all sources of emissions, and because, even if we did, we’d still need to deal with the CO₂ that’s already in the atmosphere from the last 100+ years. Most climate models estimate we’ll need to remove around five to ten billion tons per year by 2050, roughly the equivalent of the United States’ annual emissions.
We’ve already done a fair amount of damage to our ecosystem. And even with new new, clean sources of energy, we’ll need to clean up the mess we’ve already made. That’s where carbon removal comes into play.
We did a Q&A with Nan Ransohoff, Head of Climate at Stripe, on carbon removal and Frontier’s approach to it. Just yesterday, Frontier announced its second round of carbon removal purchases.
Stripe worked with three promising startups working on carbon removal to tell their stories, and we’re sharing those videos below to give you a tangible sense of the breadth of approaches to carbon removal. Maybe it even motivates a few of you to tackle similarly ambitious projects or support theirs.
Noah Smith for Noahpinion
If you read the Weekly Dose of Optimism, you basically also read Noah Smith’s newsletter Noahpinion. That’s because we’re generally excited by and interested in many of the same topics and trends — and because he’s one of the best writers on those topics and trends, we often feature him. If you haven’t already, subscribe to his newsletter.
In this recent essay, he maps out the three major areas of techno-optimism heading into 2023:
The A.I Breakout: “the key reason to be optimistic about AI is that it isn’t slowing down”
The Energy Revolution Rolls Onward: “we’re not just going to save the planet from destruction; we’re going to get cheaper electricity than we have ever known, as a species”
The Strange Biotech Boom: “there is just a whole lot of human brainpower going into a whole lot of different kinds of biotech, and it’s apparently paying off.”
These are all topics we cover extensively at Not Boring, and we’d add in advancements in space, defense, manufacturing, and web3 infrastructure as areas of optimism as we head into the new year.
Derek Thompson and Eli Dourado for The Plain English Podcast
OK, we’re feeling the holiday spirit and giving shoutouts to all of our fellow techno-optimist brothers out there. This conversation between Derek Thompson and Eli Dourado, both mainstays on the Weekly Dose of Optimism, covers much of the same ground as Smith’s essay, but is perhaps a bit more approachable for the uninitiated.
One interesting take away from this conversation is the recent the resurgence of obesity drugs. Fen-phen came on the market in the early 1990s and subsequently withdrew in 1997, leaving a wake of $13B in legal damages and a negative stigma around obesity drugs behind it. Now, Semaglutide, sold under a variety of brand names (Wegovy, Ozempic, etc) is producing life altering results: nearly 15% weight loss with minimal serious side effects.
That’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your inbox 9am EST on Monday morning with our last email of the year. Enjoy the weekend!