If the venture capital hysteria around solar manufacturing were judged by the billions of dollars invested, it could be called a great success. But the long (and still growing) list of failed solar companies proves that a rush of investment doesn't tell the full story.
It's a helpful reminder when tracking the surge of investment in new energy sectors like distributed battery storage, off-grid renewables for developing countries, and predictive energy-efficiency software. Companies in these areas are all picking up hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it from venture firms. Many will not make it past the hype cycle.
A new report from the think tank Third Way outlines the latest attraction for investors: advanced nuclear technologies.
Advanced nuclear is a wide-ranging industry that covers numerous reactor designs. The Third Way report looks at 10 of them, including molten salt, liquid metal, high-temperature gas reactors and fusion reactors.
According to the brief, private investors have committed $1.3 billion to support nearly 50 startups working on commercializing new reactor designs across the U.S. and Canada. The companies include more mature players (a relative term for the slow-moving industry) like NuScale Power, and various startups that are now emerging from government labs.
Report author Samuel Brinton called the recent growth in investment "staggering."
The map below shows all the companies in Third Way's tracker. (Click to enlarge.)
Advanced nuclear reactor designs are touted by advocates as a safer, more cost-competitive alternative to traditional light water reactors. Some can reuse spent fuel rods, thus eliminating waste; they can be constructed modularly and scaled based on need; and many are built around fail-safe designs that don't require manual control during emergencies.
These attributes are compelling -- at least to those not inherently opposed to nuclear. And in small amounts, dozens of startups are picking up money to design and test their reactors.
But advanced nuclear technologies face hard realities. The permitting process in America is time-consuming and expensive. Startups will need to spend tens of millions of dollars just to get their first projects approved by regulators. And while government labs have left behind years of testing that these companies can learn from, the vast majority of startups are a decade away from their first prototype.
What will the global energy system look like a decade from now, assuming some of these reactors are ready?
On a high-energy planet, cheaper, safer nuclear needs to play a role, say advocates. But with distributed technologies like solar PV quickly becoming the "default" technology of choice based on price, it's difficult to gauge the competitiveness of these emerging technologies.
To hear what it's like building a nuclear startup from the ground up, listen to the Energy Gang interview below with Transatomic Power CEO Leslie Dewan: