Nuclear fusion holds the promise of providing humans with safe and clean electricity, but it's going to take quite some time to get out there, said Steve Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley Livermore Lab, during a presentation at the China-U.S. Climate Conference taking place at U.C. Berkeley this week.
"It won't be a major supplier of energy this century," he said. In a very best case scenario, it will provide ten to 20 percent of the world's energy needs by 2100.
In nuclear fusion, atoms are fused together; the energy released is then harvested. Fusion is considered safe because a chain reaction, unlike in nuclear fission, doesn't occur during the process.
Nuclear fission, or traditional nuclear energy, can't be an easy way out of burning fossil fuels either. To go all nuclear, the world would need enough nuclear plants to provide 3 terawatts of energy. "We'd have to build a gigawatt reactor every week for fifty years," he noted.
Instead, one of the better places to start reducing greenhouse gases lay in conservation. The electricity consumption of refrigerators was climbing in the 1970s until new regulations came in. Although industry experts expected costs to explode, the opposite has happened. Fridges cost less in real dollars, they have larger capacities on average, and only use as much energy as they did back in 1947 on average.
"Once you say 'regulation' people get very ingenious," he said.