Nuclear is under severe price pressure from renewables now, as well as gas.But rather than throw the decades of investment and knowledge away, the U.S. Department of Energy is launching three first-of-a-kind projects designed to improve the long-term economic competitiveness of the nuclear power industry. Three commercial electric utilities and Idaho National Laboratory have been chosen to adapt plants to make hydrogen by electrolysis, 100% carbon free. If successful, the hydrogen will be used for primary energy, transport and storage. Currently, most hydrogen is made for industrial and agricultural uses, and hardly any is produced carbon-free. These projects can also solve another of the big threats to nuclear’s business model: when grid prices are low, nuclear plants must power down. No need to when there’s hydrogen to be made, creating a new revenue stream. Dan Yurman digs into the details.
Three nuclear utilities have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to partner with the Idaho National Laboratory to begin making hydrogen for commercial use.
If successful, the project will have a positive impact on the utilities’ financial health.
The utility participants are;
- Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions, the industry leader for the effort, which owns and operates the Davis-Besse nuclear plant.
- Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based energy company that owns and operates two nuclear plants in Minnesota; and
- Arizona Public Service (APS), a Phoenix, Arizona-based utility that operates Palo Verde Generating Station.
Commercial Green Hydrogen by electrolysis
The two-year project led by FirstEnergy Solutions will deploy a 1- to 3-MWe low-temperature electrolysis unit to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen. The first site, planned for 2020, is FirstEnergy Solution’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station near Toledo, Ohio.
Hydrogen from Davis-Besse may initially be used to supply public transportation fleets in Ohio, in new direct iron reduction plants being constructed to produce steel products, or for other commercial products. (See this DOE briefing on the use of hydrogen in the iron and steel industry.)
Hydrogen for transport
The project will demonstrate how hydrogen from commercial nuclear operations can be used to produce “green” products and commodities in significant quantities for domestic use and for export to international markets. For instance, Germany is now running commuter passenger trains powered by hydrogen.
Video/Animation: the Coradia iLint by Alstom – the worlds’ first fuel cell passenger train
The second site, planned for 2021, will occur at an Xcel Energy nuclear site and employ technologies for hydrogen production, which could be used to reduce the environmental impact of a number of industrial processes and possibly also in the transportation sector.
Hydrogen for grid balancing
The demonstration project at Xcel Energy will help determine if hydrogen production can enhance the company’s growing carbon-free footprint. Redirecting nuclear energy from electricity to hydrogen production could help balance the electrical grid with the increasing amount of wind and solar energy on the system.
The company has also been testing flexible operations at its nuclear plants, but hydrogen could create an entirely new value stream. Xcel Energy plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent in the Upper Midwest by 2030 (from 2005 levels) and is pursuing a vision to provide electricity from 100 percent carbon-free sources by 2050.
Hydrogen for storage
The third site, planned for 2020-2022, will occur at APS’ Palo Verde Generating Station near Phoenix, Arizona. This will employ similar or more advanced hydrogen production technologies. Hydrogen from Palo Verde may be used as energy storage for use in reverse-operable electrolysis or peaking gas turbines during times of the day when photovoltaic solar energy sources are unavailable and energy reserves in the U.S. Southwest are low.
It could also be used to support a hydrogen transportation fuel market. Experience from this pilot project will offer valuable insights into methods for flexible transitions between electricity and hydrogen generation missions in solar-dominated electricity markets. Also, it could demonstrate how hydrogen may be used as energy storage to provide electricity during operating periods when solar is not available.
Hydrogen production enables 100% nuclear plant utilisation
While some industry analysts asked why DOE would call this project a “demonstration,” others pointed to view that this may be a strategy to eliminate the need and challenge of a nuclear power plant to do load following with the cheaper but intermittent renewable generation.
Rather than reducing load when renewables are at rated capacity, the analyst said, the load would be shifted to hydrogen generation and the reactor would be maintained at full power thus eliminating the well known operational concerns of load following. In other words, it is a form of “load replacement” to ease the work of making nuclear power plants compatible on the grid with the intermittent nature of renewables.
Davis-Besse plant may get a new lease on life
First Energy has scheduled Davis-Besse to be closed, along with Ohio’s Perry plant, due to an inability to compete with the low price of natural gas. The new project may boost the bottom line of the utility and keep the plant open. The DOE project is worth $11.5M of which $9M will be allocated to the Davis-Besse effort.
Wire service reports in Ohio quoted Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who announced the grant in her district. She said hydrogen production could be a new energy alternative that would keep nuclear power plants competitive for years.
She said costs of the project will be shared between federal agencies, industry-led teams and public and private laboratories. The U.S. Department of Energy will invest $9,184,229 while non-DOE partners will invest $2,299,391, for a total $11,483,620. Under this proposal FirstEnergy Solutions will develop a light water reactor (LWR) hybrid energy system for installation at Davis-Besse. She added that the project was competitively awarded.
“This funding will play an important role in improving Davis-Besse’s capacity to produce useable energy in a way that is more economically sustainable, has more industrial uses, and makes Davis-Besse economically competitive for the long-term,” Kaptur added in a press statement.
According to Kaptur, the United States produces over 10 million tons of hydrogen, nearly one-seventh of the global supply, primarily for oil refining and fertilizer production.
Background on the project
The three commercial electric utilities and Idaho National Laboratory have been chosen by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy for three first-of-a-kind projects to improve the long-term economic competitiveness of the nuclear power industry.
Through these competitive awards, DOE encourages partnerships between federal agencies, public and private laboratories, institutions of higher education, and the business community, including electric utilities, to share expertise needed to successfully develop innovative nuclear technologies.
In a press statement, Bruce Hallbert, director of DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, based at INL, said, “These first-of-a-kind projects represent significant advances for improving the long-term economic competitiveness of the light water reactor industry,”
“They will enable the production of commodities such as hydrogen in addition to electricity from commercial nuclear power plants. These projects also accelerate the transition to a national hydrogen economy by contributing to the use of hydrogen as a storage medium for production of electricity, as a zero-emitting transportation fuel, or as a replacement for industrial processes that currently use carbon-emitting sources in hydrogen production.”
INL is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories. The laboratory performs work in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and environment. INL is the nation’s leading centre for nuclear energy research and development. Day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.
Exelon exploring Hydrogen production with Norway’s Nel Hydrogen
Last month Power Magazine reported that Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power generator, and Norwegian firm Nel Hydrogen, could demonstrate an integrated hydrogen production, storage, and utilisation facility at an existing nuclear plant site. The $3.6 million project is one of 29 projects the Department of Energy (DOE) selected in August to receive up to $40 million in fiscal year 2019 federal funding to advance the H2@Scale concept (DOE List of funded projects.)
The plan is to enable “reliable” large-scale hydrogen generation, transport, storage, and utilisation in the U.S. across multiple sectors. Exelon work with DOE to plan for up to $3.6 million in federal funding, which it will cost-share, for the three-year-long demonstration.
Exelon plans to select a site on which to install a proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyser and an associated hydrogen storage system, along with supporting infrastructure, and a control system. Exelon said it took on the project because nuclear economics have lately been challenged by the widespread use of cheap renewable and natural gas to produce electrical power.
Dan Yurman is the author of Neutron Bytes and writes on nuclear matters.
This article is published with permission