Oil giants such as Equinor and Shell could play a key role in scaling up and commercialising nuclear fusion power, a conference discussing the future of the technology often dubbed the energy transition’s ‘magic bullet’ was told.
The ventures arms of Norway’s Equinor and supermajor Shell – two of the world’s biggest oil & gas players – are backing fusion technology pioneers CFS and Zap Energy respectively, as they work to harness the reactions that fuel the sun in an effort to produce unlimited, on-demand, zero-carbon energy (see panel).
Kjetil Skaugset, a senior adviser on technology management at Equinor, told the FusionXInvest event in London: “We have a strategy of shaping the future of energy – if fusion’s not part of that what is?”
Skaugset claimed fusion fits into a “strategic portfolio” for Equinor that also includes renewables and hydrogen, with “our experience in offshore wind important in the context” as it moves to roll-out new technologies such as floating wind globally.
Once the first commercial fusion devices are operating – which most don’t expect to see before the early 2030s – Skaugset said “we need scale, we need for that to roll out globally. That’s a daunting task.”
The Equinor executive added: “Say we have ‘x’ number of devices that have proved themselves, you need to make them at a scale and in a manner that really helps the energy transition.”
Asked how backing fusion fits into a global decarbonisation push led by renewables and Equinor's plans in the home Norwegian market, he said: “There’s an intermittency issue with [renewables], which you need to overcome by either storage or, like in Norway, hydropower, which is backing it with a baseload. [In the future] fusion is the baseload. So there's a potential interaction there as well.”
Skaugset added: “It makes perfect sense. Norway is where we come from but Equinor is in more than 30 countries.”
Shell Ventures venture principal Liliia Chechel told the event that in her view strategic investors could play a role as “patient capital [and] long term investors” in fusion as it edges towards commercial reality.
“As the [technology] becomes derisked we could bring our project management expertise when it comes to building the plants,” she added, in comments made in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of Shell Ventures.
She sees fusion investments as “high risk but [with] a very high return opportunity in the longer term”.
Shell’s fellow backers of Zap include oil giant Chevron and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, while another global oil player, Eni, is a CFS investor alongside Equinor.
Note: article was amended to clarify that Shell Ventures' Chechel was offering personal opinions.
Nuclear fusion energy aims to harness the reactions that power the sun to produce unlimited, on-demand, clean energy.
The process involves changing a gas to a plasma at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees, often aided by superconducting magnets, to create collisions between hydrogen atoms, tapping the energy that’s produced.
Unlike its close cousin nuclear fission – basis of the current global nuclear industry, which relies on splitting rather than combining atoms – fusion is said by scientists to present no risk of the sort of runaway reaction that led to the Chernobyl disaster.
And while it is not waste-free, the by-products are said to be low and short-lived compared to fission, and much more easily manageable.