Inslee visits major fusion energy companies in Everett to witness ‘world-changing’ efforts

Inslee visits major fusion energy companies in Everett to witness ‘world-changing’ efforts

EVERETT—Governor Jay Inslee made back-to-back visits to two major fusion energy startups — Helion Energy and Zap Energy, both based in Everett — on Tuesday, July 9, to get a firsthand look at how the recently passed Substitute House Bill 1942 will pave the way for how Snohomish County and the world at large address their clean energy problem.

Governor Jay Inslee (right) tours Helion in Everett on July 9, 2024. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe.

“If you have something that can change the world, it’s worth the risk.” Governor Inslee he told a room full of reporters at Helion Energy in Everett as he stood in front of a part that will be used to build the world’s first machine to demonstrate fusion power generation.

SHB-1942, introduced by Clyde Shavers (Democrat of Oak Harbor) and cosponsored by Cindy Ryu (Democrat of Shoreline), promotes the integration of fusion technology into the state’s clean energy policy. It passed unanimously in both chambers last session, was signed on March 28, and went into effect last month.

Inslee’s first stop of the day was Helion Energy, a fusion energy company with nearly 308 employees that is currently working to build the world’s first fusion power plant in Chelan County by 2028.

“I am convinced that this technology will change the world, provided we can succeed,” said Governor Inslee. “This is a very Washington project because it’s based on ambition and incredible technological talent — that’s what we do here in Washington state. I’m really glad we’re preparing the ground in front of us, while (David) is building the machine, we’re building a place to put it, and that’s the kind of race we’re in.”

Fusion energy
Part of Helion’s fusion engine. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe.

The problem, however, lies in politics, particularly the question of how to build a safe and sustainable fusion power plant. This was a key reason Helion met with the governor on Tuesday.

In June, the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act as part of the Fire Grants and Safety Act, which promotes the responsible production of clean nuclear energy worldwide through the development and deployment of new nuclear technologies. This bill makes clear that fusion energy is not nuclear energy, which would exempt Helion Energy from many federal regulations. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.

“We want to continue to do it safely, but we want to be able to do it faster” said Helion founder and CEO David Kirtley. “We’re on a very tight schedule and have little sleep. That means we have to build as fast as we can, as quickly as we can.”

If the President signs this bill, Helion and other fusion energy companies would be subject to similar regulations as hospitals. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the radiation emitted by fusion energy production is the same as that emitted by hospitals.

Helion was founded in 2013 by David Kirtley, John Slough, Chris Pihl and George Votroubek with the goal of generating carbon-free electricity through fusion. The company’s mission is to build the world’s first fusion power plant, enabling a future of unlimited clean electricity.

On May 10, 2023, Helion announced a power purchase agreement with Microsoft, one of the company’s two customers, which will purchase electricity from Helion once the power plant is operational.

“We are very proud to have Microsoft as our first customer! With this partnership, we are not only accelerating the timeline for commercial deployment of fusion energy on the grid, but also supporting Microsoft’s goal of being carbon negative by 2030. Microsoft has a long history of unveiling breakthrough technologies while considering their impact on the climate, making it the ideal customer for electricity from our first fusion power plant,” said Kirtley after the agreement was signed.

In 2019, Helion Energy completed its sixth prototype, Trenta, which fires over 10,000 fusion pulses and reaches temperatures of up to 9 kiloelectronvolts (a unit used to measure how much energy is extracted from an electron).

The company is currently working on developing its next state-of-the-art machine, Polaris, which will operate up to 1,000 times faster than Trenta and, if successful, will be the world’s first fusion plant to demonstrate electricity generation through fusion. The accelerated model will be better suited to meet commercial needs once it is operational, the company said.

“The world needs fusion energy, and it needs it now,” CEO David Kirtley said on Tuesday‘s tour.

Helion’s long-term goal is to build future fusion energy plants that are smaller and more efficient, ultimately making the energy source more accessible.

“We need a stable base load that doesn’t pollute the environment. We use all the renewable energy that is possible, from solar, wind and everything that’s efficient and batteries. But to beat climate change, we ultimately need a base load, and that’s exactly what fusion energy gives us.” said Governor Inslee. “If you have something that can change the world, you have to go after it.”

Inslee visits Zap Energy

After Inslee’s visit to Helion, he went to Zap Energy, a startup currently developing affordable, compact and scalable fusion energy technology that may offer the shortest path to commercially viable fusion and requires many times less capital than traditional approaches. It does this by confining and compressing plasma without the need for expensive and complex magnetic coils.

Ben Levitt, Zap’s vice president of research and development, demonstrates the FuZE device to Governor Jay Inslee on July 9, 2024. FuZE can create fusion plasmas hotter than the center of the sun and is regularly operated from our labs in Everett. SOURCE: Zap Energy.

“Without something like fusion, it will be extraordinarily difficult to decarbonise the planet, but progress in developing fusion is slow, largely due to the size and cost of the machines,” said Andy Freeberg, Head of Communications for Zap. “Zap’s unique physics approach allows it to iterate much faster on smaller, cheaper devices that have shown the fastest improving performance in fusion in recent years. Washington has become an international leader in fusion development, and the faster we can prove that fusion can be an on-demand energy source, the easier it will be to overcome many of the biggest obstacles to a clean energy transition.”

Zap Energy’s Fusion Z-Pinch Experiment (FuZE) was originally funded for research at the University of Washington by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Unlike magnetic confinement and inertial confinement, Zap Energy’s technology is based on a plasma confinement scheme called Z-pinch, in which large electrical currents are passed through a thin plasma filament. The conducting plasma generates its own electromagnetic fields that both heat and compress it.

By compressing and heating plasma made of two types of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, their nuclei collide and fuse, releasing about 10 million times more energy per ounce in fusion reactions than burning the same amount of coal, the company’s website says.

Its latest FuZE-Q platform is the breakthrough technology that now leads to a “cheap, compact, scalable fusion energy technology with potentially the shortest path to commercially viable fusion.” Last year, the company received $5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program.

Fusion energy
Ben Levitt, Zap’s vice president of research and development, demonstrates the FuZE device to Governor Jay Inslee and Representatives Mary Fosse and Julio Cortes on July 9, 2024. SOURCE: Zap Energy.

“We have two of the leading merger companies just a mile away from each other,” Inslee told the Lynnwood Times“We have taken some steps to help them. I did not design the fusion reactors, but I recognized the potential of the technology and the government is helping them.”

Inslee shared that there are about 500 people working across both companies on this groundbreaking energy source needed to meet baseload energy needs. He commented on how impressed he was that Zap Energy is truly producing a homegrown product.

“They build their capacitors in their own company, in the state of Washington,” Inslee said“It’s a very local company with local technology, local manufacturing and local engineers.”

Inslee sees the merger as a viable energy source and an enrichment of the state’s diverse energy portfolio.

“Fusion is the holy grail of energy. It avoids pollution, poses no safety risks and offers a virtually infinite fuel supply.” Inslee said“This would change the whole world, not just Washington state.”

Notable attendees included local Everett state legislators Mary Fosse and Julio Cortes.

The Governor’s final stop on his tour of Snohomish County was the new Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Research and Development Center at Paine Field – the world’s first in sustainable aviation fuels – where biofuels are being researched and developed for the aerospace industry with the ultimate goal of reducing their carbon footprint.

Each of the three locations Governor Inslee visited on Tuesday is doing its part to support Washington State’s Climate Commitment Act, which caps and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s largest emissions sources and industries. The ultimate goal of the law, passed by lawmakers in 2021, is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050.

Editor’s note: Contribution from Zap Energy by Mario Lotmore.