The future of the global energy sector is in the hands of Artificial Intelligence. AI is proving to be an increasingly essential component of decarbonization pathways and solving the energy trilemma: the tricky problem of producing energy that is A) sufficient for global development, B) affordable and accessible for all, and C) environmentally sustainable.
Solving the trilemma and meeting climate goals will necessarily involve systems transformation at an unprecedented scale, which will depend on an intelligent, responsive, and flexible computing system able to recognize and predict complex patterns of production and consumption. Already, AI is playing a major role in renewable energy forecasting, smart grids, coordination of energy demand and distribution, maximizing efficiency of power production, and research and development of new materials.
But the relationship between AI and energy goes two ways. AI doesn’t just present opportunities to the energy sector; it also presents significant challenges – one of which is the huge amount of energy that AI itself needs for operational purposes. In some cases, the energy footprints of singular AI training models have equaled that of 125 New York-Beijing round-trip flights, or the lifetime carbon footprint of five cars. In other words, the use of AI in energy markets needs to be strategic in order to reduce energy footprints rather than inflate them.
Sam Altman, the founder of OpenAI – the now (in)famous firm behind ChatGPT – thinks that nuclear energy will play a key role in keeping AI’s carbon footprint in check. “The AI systems of the future will need tremendous amounts of energy and this fission and fusion can help deliver them,” Altman was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Altman also expressed that he thinks that AI will have some positive implications for nuclear-system designs as well, creating a kind of symbiotic AI-nuclear relationship. This is not a new idea – for years now, researchers have been looking into the various ways that AI and machine learning can be integrated into nuclear power production for a more efficient, less expensive, and safer nuclear energy sector.
Altman is clearly serious about his hope for nuclear energy’s role in the future of the energy and technology sectors. Just this week, it was announced that Oklo, an AI-integrated startup specializing in “nuclear microreactors” will go public in 2024. Oklo is valued at around $850 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company expects that its innovative microreactors will be ideal for military applications where connection to an existing power grid isn’t possible, as well as for companies that are looking for alternative energy sources to help meet their decarbonization goals. Oklo has already secured $50 million in funding, $420,000 in grants from the Department of Energy (DOE), and a permit to build its first microreactor at the Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s leading center for nuclear research. The pilot project is slated to come online by 2026 or 2027.
These micro-reactors are an important innovation in the nuclear energy sector because they run on spent nuclear fuel that would otherwise be a (radioactive) waste product. “Today's reactors use about 5% of the energy content contained in their fuel, meaning nearly 95% of the energy content remains unused,” reports the company’s website. According to the firm’s calculations, there is enough existing spent nuclear fuel in the United States to power the country for 150 through fuel-recycling models such as the one that Oklo is proposing. Recycling used nuclear fuel would also potentially be a huge win-win for U.S. taxpayers, who are currently footing billions of dollars for the maintenance of nuclear waste.
Altman is the just latest in a long line of tech billionaires investing in nuclear energy. High-profile proponents of nuclear power include Elon Musk and Bill Gates. The public, too, is increasingly supportive of the historically controversial form of power production – a recent Gallup poll found that support for the technology is at a 10-year high.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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