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Today, we break down a huge breakthrough for nuclear fusion — and why we can’t count on it for unlimited clean energy just yet.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility. Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California made a huge announcement Tuesday: For the first time, they achieved a net energy gain from nuclear fusion

Today’s nuclear plants operate through fission, a process that breaks atoms apart to create a lot of energy. Controlled fusion — sticking hydrogen atoms together and creating a massive amount of harnessable energy — has meanwhile been elusive for decades, but has long been seen as a potential source of zero-emission energy.

But this time around, the fusion process created a bit more energy than it took in. “It’s like the Kitty Hawk moment for the Wright brothers,” Melanie Windridge, a plasma physicist and the CEO of Fusion Energy Insights, told the Washington Post.

So … next stop: unlimited clean energy? Well, not quite.

For starters, the lasers scientists used to fuse the hydrogen atoms took a ton of energy to power, though they only directed a smaller amount of that energy at the atoms. The reaction also only produced a tiny bit more energy than it used, and could only be replicated about once a day.

So as Kimberly S. Budil, the director of Lawrence Livermore lab, said Tuesday, it’ll be “probably decades” before fusion energy can be widely adopted — if it sees widespread success at all.

More clean energy news

📝 Permitting reform saga continues: After Democratic leaders leave out Sen. Joe Manchin’s energy permitting reforms from a must-pass defense spending bill, Manchin looks to add them back in as an amendment. (E&E News, Utility Dive)

🔍 Hidden space for solar: A mapping company develops a free tool to help transportation departments find pieces of land where they could build solar arrays, even letting them create virtual mockups alongside highways and roads. (Grist)

⚡ Federal buildings go electric: The Biden administration proposes a requirement that new or renovated federal buildings be fully carbon-neutral by 2030, achieved by implementing American-made heat pumps, electric water heaters and other efficient appliances. (The Hill, E&E News)

💰 Can billionaires solve climate change? As global governments fail to quickly reduce emissions, billionaires step in to fund clean energy technologies and climate strategies — with questionable consequences. (Washington Post)

👀 Fossil fuel climate hypocrisy continues: As the industry publicly claims it supports the clean energy transition, a House committee investigation finds oil and gas leaders are privately skeptical of renewables’ potential and seek carbon capture funding to avoid changing their business models. (Washington Post)

🤝 Solar workers unionize: Labor advocates see success in their efforts to organize unions in the growing solar industry, even in right-to-work states like Texas. (American Prospect)

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Kathryn brings her extensive editorial background to the Energy News Network team, where she oversees the early-morning production of ENN’s five email digest newsletters as well as distribution of ENN’s original journalism with other media outlets. From documenting chronic illness’ effect on college students to following the inner workings of Congress, Kathryn has built a broad experience in her more than five years working at major publications including The Week Magazine. Kathryn holds a Bachelor of Science in magazine journalism and information management and technology from Syracuse University.