This article was originally written in Energy Spectrum on 21 March 2021. To find out more about a subscription to Energy Spectrum, please contact Nick on firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are several challenges to reaching net zero, where its proponents believe nuclear could add value. Some of tomorrow’s main issues concern: How to provide low carbon heat to our homes and industry? How to produce low carbon drop-in replacement fuels? And how to not only stop emitting but also start subtracting CO2 out of our atmosphere?
In this blog, we discuss some of the arguments where nuclear helps address these challenges. For a background in nuclear energy and its value in helping the UK reach its net zero targets, please see our last blog on nuclear energy here.
The importance of hydrogen in our energy system is projected to increase dramatically by 2050 (Figure 1). The vast majority of hydrogen is currently produced using fossil fuels (brown hydrogen). In the future, this will need to shift towards more climate-friendly production pathways, perhaps through renewables, nuclear electricity or by the addition of highly effective carbon capture. In February 2021, the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) agreed on a Hydrogen Roadmap that argued that nuclear power could produce a third of the UK’s green hydrogen by 2050.
Emerging technologies such as High-Temperature Steam Electrolysis (HTSE), which enables higher efficiency hydrogen production, could potentially dominate the nuclear hydrogen market by unlocking the comparative advantage of the low carbon heat available at a nuclear plant.
Low carbon process heat
Industrial heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand in the world. Currently, nearly all process heat is delivered from carbon-intensive fuels. The difficulty with decarbonising this sector is finding a suitable source of high-temperature heat necessary for various industries such as refining, chemicals/ammonia, paper, glass, ceramics and more.
New smaller advanced reactors could deliver high temperature/high-pressure steam where it is needed. The siting requirements of the AMRs are likely to be substantially different from those of the GW-scale reactors, mainly due to the inherent safety features of AMRs. This opens the opportunity to provide cost-effective process steam where it is needed and remove the disadvantage of costly long-distance heat transport.
Direct Air Capture of CO2
Climate action is at the forefront of the transition in all sectors of the economy. Whilst tremendous effort is being exerted, some industries are particularly hard to decarbonise (e.g., aviation, agriculture). This means that we will likely need the power system to ‘produce’ negative emissions to make up for the industries that will not decarbonise in time to reach the 2050 net zero target. The government is currently considering mechanisms to incentivise negative emission technologies. Potentially, a price could be paid per every ton of CO2 permanently removed.
Direct Air Capture (DAC) is an energy-intensive process, so it is crucial that low carbon energy sources power it. DAC plants could be co-located near GW-scale and smaller nuclear plants to take advantage of the abundant low carbon heat and electricity. While electricity demand could be satisfied by other generation technologies, large quantities of low carbon heat are harder to acquire.
Generators on the UK electricity system will need to become more flexible as the share of variable renewable generation increases. New nuclear plants could become much more flexible when coupled with thermal storage.
Nuclear is considered relatively inflexible and is typically operated as baseload to avoid thermal cycling of the plant and loss of revenue when operating at a decreased load. These issues could be avoided by regulating the nuclear plant’s electricity generation by installing a thermal store and oversizing the turbogenerator compared to the nuclear heat source. The thermal store then enables the nuclear reactor to operate at full power continuously, while the power generation to the grid can vary flexibly. Heat from the store could also be used for multiple applications, like district heating or process heating.
Last but not least, synthetic fuels! Our economy is and will be, for a period of time, dependent on hydrocarbon fuels. Currently, used fossil fuels need to be replaced with clean alternatives, like synthetic fuels. That can be done via advanced processing of products from the above processes, such as hydrogen and CO2.
The traditional GW-scale baseload electricity-only nuclear plant model has done a good job supplying low carbon power to power systems worldwide for many decades. Future-proof nuclear power will need to expand upon its inherent advantages as a low carbon heat source by evolving the product portfolio beyond electricity; and designing for an increasingly flexible operation to integrate with an increasingly renewable grid.
All this, of course, is highly dependent on market conditions and future political and regulatory approaches to advanced nuclear and non-electric applications of nuclear power.
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