Microsoft Signs an Electricity Purchase Agreement with Helion
Fusion Industry2023-05-16 14:38:18 All >

Nuclear fusion startup Helion Energy announced on May 10, local time, that it had signed a power purchase agreement with Microsoft to provide it with electricity of 50MW or greater by 2028. 

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Fig.1 A view of the end of Helion’s seventh-generation prototype, the Polaris.

The deal is a notable vote of confidence by the computer technology corporation for fusion, which has thus far not been commercialized.

The deal is a real PPA, so there’s financial penalties if Helion can’t deliver power, said David Kirtley, founder and CEO of Helion.

Microsoft’s agreement to buy electricity from Helion is the first time a fusion company has inked a deal to sell electricity, according to Andrew Holland, the CEO of the Fusion Industry Association. He added that Helion has a strong plan for getting to the aggressive goal of 2028.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) confirmed a regulatory framework for fusion just one month ago in April. This move has presumably boosted the confidence of the two parties in signing the agreement. 

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Fig.2  Chris Pihl (CTO), David Kirtley (CEO), George Votroubek (Director of Research).

Fusion has been lauded as the holy grail of clean energy

Fusion is the way the sun makes power and holds the promise of being able to meet human energy demands at ease. More importantly, it emits no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the best clean energy solution to our aggravating climate problems.

As responding to climate change has become an increasingly urgent goal for companies and countries around the globe, Bill Gates, Sam Altman, Jeff Bezos and many other investors have poured USD 5 billion into private fusion companies looking to turn that holy grail into electrons flowing through wires. Helion Energy is a shining star in the field.

Helion was founded in 2013. One of the early and most significant investors in Helion, Sam Altman, is also a founder of OpenAI, the artificial intelligence organization that developed the chat platform ChatGPT, in which Microsoft has invested many billions of dollars. Altman believes the two deals are equally important and correlated components of the future he sees for humanity.

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 Fig.3 Elon Musk and Sam Altman, founders of OpenAI

If demand for and use of artificial intelligence continues to increase, then that will increase demand for energy, too. The potential of fusion is “unbelievably huge”. “It’s why I’ve been so passionate about this project for so long,” said Altman.

In 2021, he put USD 375 million into Helion, the largest investment he personally has ever made. In total, Helion has raised USD 577 million.

Helion plans to develop a controlled fusion power system the same size as a container that will produce at least 50MW of electricity (equivalent to that of 15 to 20 wind turbines in China). The company is currently building its seventh-generation fusion machine, named Polaris. 

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Fig.4 An infographic showing how Helion’s fusion technology works.

Fusion holds the prospect of being able to generate unlimited clean energy and helps us deliver on our ultimate dream of abundant, cheap, safe, and clean energy. Microsoft is one of the few corporations that aim to become carbon negative. As early as three years ago, it has already announced its climate targets: removing more carbon than it emits by 2030 and removing all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975 by 2050.

Microsoft pledges to shift to 100% supply of renewables by 2025. The power purchase agreement with Helion is a pathway to Microsoft’s zero-carbon goal, although the promised time of fusion power comes later than 2025, and the agreed electricity amount is 50MW—a drop in the bucket compared with the total electricity required for Microsoft’s climate targets. Nevertheless, “Helion’s announcement supports our own long-term clean energy goals and will advance the market to establish a new, efficient method for bringing more clean energy to the grid, faster,” said Brad Smith, president at Microsoft. 

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Fig.5 Microsoft’s pathway to carbon negative by 2030

Currently, there are more than 30 fusion energy startups, Helion included. It’s believed that more investors will follow Microsoft’s steps to expand the capital pool of fusion energy. Just as Helion stated in the announcement, “This collaboration represents a significant milestone for Helion and the fusion industry as a whole”. It will not only shorten the projected timeline for commercially viable fusion energy, but also help Microsoft to achieve its goal of being carbon negative by 2030.

Energy is a fundamental cornerstone for the survival and development of human society, and every major progress we have made goes hand in hand with energy revolutions. The successful connection of electricity from nuclear fusion with power grids, if made possible in 5 years, will surely lead the world we now live in into an era of possibilities. 

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