Zap Energy will study the potential benefits of transitioning a natural gas power plant to a first-of-a-kind fusion pilot plant.
As a technology that is small, safe and emission-free, a Zap Energy fusion power plant will be able to serve a wide variety of locations, from a major urban area to a remote outpost. One tantalizing prospect is the possibility of retrofitting coal or other fossil fuel plant infrastructure with Zap’s fusion energy reactor cores.
A new $1 million grant from the Centralia Coal Transition Board (CCTB) will support the first major effort to explore exactly that scenario. Leveraged with matching funding from Zap Energy, a team of fusion energy and power plant operations experts will undertake a detailed feasibility study to consider whether a site at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford Power Plant, Washington’s only remaining coal power plant, might host a first-of-its-kind Z-pinch fusion pilot plant.
Washington’s clean energy future
Fusion power involves taking some of the smallest building blocks of matter and fusing them together in reactions that create energy. Fusion reactions are the opposite of nuclear fission reactions — the breaking of atoms — and, in contrast to fission, fusion presents no risk of meltdown or long-lived radioactive waste. Researchers have been working to unlock fusion as an energy source for decades, and Zap Energy is among the leading private fusion companies paving the path to commercial fusion energy.
When developed, producing electricity from fusion can work in much the same way it does for current fossil fuel plants that burn coal, natural gas or other fuels — fusion reactions create heat that can be used to boil water into steam to spin a turbine and power a generator. One goal of the feasibility study is to determine what parts of the plant’s existing infrastructure and technology might be used by a future fusion plant.
“Since our home is in the state of Washington, when we started thinking about where we might locate our first plant, it made sense to look for a natural fit locally,” says Ryan Umstattd, VP of Product at Zap Energy. “It turned out that the site at Centralia offers several unique benefits.”
Washington has long been a leader in carbon-free energy, with roughly two-thirds of the state’s electricity coming from hydropower. In 2011 the state passed legislation to fully phase out coal power. As a result, TransAlta agreed to transition the Centralia facility off coal with the first unit retiring at the end of 2020 and the second unit at the end of 2025. TransAlta set up the Centralia Coal Transition grants to help fund projects that support the community’s transition and to fund technologies to create energy, improve air quality or provide other environmental benefits for the state of Washington.
“A lot of great ideas have been proposed and we are excited to work with companies like Zap Energy to explore and build the foundations that could bring the next generation of jobs and innovation to the economy,” says Mickey Dreher, President of TransAlta US.
In this case the project will directly study a substation at TransAlta’s Big Hanaford Power Plant that was previously used to generate power from natural gas. Because a single Zap Energy reactor and first demonstration plant would be relatively small, the team determined the site could be about the right size and that its existing power and cooling infrastructure are potential targets for reuse. Zap Energy’s systems are being designed to be modular and any eventual commercial-scale plant would likely include multiple reactors at the same plant to maximize the economics of a given site.
Investing in the future
In addition to studying the technical design of a plant, the project will also look at preliminary environmental and safety estimates and perform outreach to get feedback from community stakeholders in Lewis County, including educational sessions to provide an opportunity for a greater understanding of what this could mean for the community and the state.
“Building a pilot plant means more than just a good set of architectural drawings,” notes Umstattd. “To be the first ones to put fusion on the grid we need support from regulators, decision-makers and people around Lewis County who are motivated to help lead the global transition to a new source of power.”
The team emphasized that the feasibility study is simply an early assessment and not a commitment to a specific site for Zap Energy’s first plant.
“Thanks to introductions made for us by Energy Impact Partners, an early investor in Zap Energy, the collaboration between Zap and TransAlta is going to be hugely beneficial to the pace of our progress,” says Umstattd. “Working with an established owner and operator of power plants in our geographic region is going to be terrific for building up our knowledge base and laying the groundwork for commercially viable fusion power.”
About Zap Energy
Zap Energy is building a low-cost, compact and scalable fusion energy platform that conﬁnes and compresses plasma without the need for expensive and complex magnetic coils. Zap’s sheared-flow-stabilized Z-pinch technology offers the shortest potential path to commercially viable fusion and requires orders of magnitude less capital than traditional approaches. Zap Energy has over 80 employees in two facilities near Seattle and is backed by leading ﬁnancial and strategic investors. Visit Zap online at zap.energy.
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