Nuclear seen keeping costs down for ‘green’ hydrogen

Nuclear power operators can mitigate high costs by fitting plants to produce hydrogen, and studies have found that the cheapest option for the growing hydrogen economy is to include nuclear in the energy mix.

Hydrogen fuel cell trucks made by Hyundai (Source: Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

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Hydrogen is increasingly seen as an essential fuel to power a future, carbon-free economy.

Burning hydrogen gives energy and water, earning the fuel its zero-emissions credentials, but hydrogen creation requires electrolysis using large amounts of electricity which, today, mostly comes from natural gas to produce ‘blue hydrogen’.

For proponents of ‘green hydrogen’ – produced by zero-emission power generation – the favored means of running the electrolysis process is via wind and solar.

However, the nuclear industry believes its high-capacity reactors are better placed to turbo charge economies’ planned move to hydrogen.

Without nuclear producing so-called ‘pink hydrogen’ – though many argue, zero-emission nuclear should also be in the ‘green’ category – the push toward a hydrogen economy will be virtually impossible, say supporters.

“A single 1,000-megawatt nuclear power reactor could produce more than 200,000 tons of hydrogen each year to fuel more than 400,000 fuel cell vehicles or more than 16,000 long haul fuel cell trucks,” IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Energy Mikhail Chudakov said during an association conference on hydrogen.

“This is why nuclear hydrogen can be a game changer in the fight against climate change. Decarbonizing heavy industry, energy storage and even synthetic fuel production are some of the many roles it can assist us with in the clean energy transition.”

British NPV total system spend from 2021-2050 (Costs are discounted using a rate of 5%)

(Source: Aurora Energy Research from 'Decarbonizing hydrogen in a net zero economy')

Denmark-sized wind farms

Canada’s National Hydrogen Strategy aims for the gas to account for 13%-30% of end use energy by 2050.

A recent study by the Nuclear Innovation Institute shows that some 10 MT/y of hydrogen would be needed to fuel 18% of Canada’s energy demand.

Around 436 TWh of new electricity generation would be needed to produce those levels of hydrogen, however, a massive undertaking for a country whose entire energy industry generates around 650 TWh of electricity a year.  

If relying on purely renewables, the land use alone for the generation of 436 TWh is staggering.

“When you start looking at the scale of electricity generation we’re going to need, land use really brings out the absurdity of thinking you’re going to do this without nuclear,” says David Campbell, Director of the Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear.

“You need this big baseload, reliable energy that anchors all of it. I think we’ll get to the point where, by virtue of necessity if nothing else, people will recognize the role that nuclear has to play.”

To generate 436 TWh would require some 26,000, 4.8 MW-wind turbines covering an area of 10.8 million acres, around the size of Denmark.

A total of 5,531 utility-scale 50-MW grid solar would spread over some 1.2 million acres, or a little less than the surface area of Trinidad and Tobago.

Large-scale nuclear – nine 6,400 MW Bruce Power plants – would cover just 21,000 acres and small-scale nuclear – 196, 300 MW small modular reactors (SMRs) – could be located in an area spanning just over 12,000 acres, according to September’s Nuclear Intelligence Report by Campbell.

Even assuming Canada builds a wind farm the size of Denmark, or Trinidad and Tobago in the case of solar, both sources’ intermittent nature makes them impractical to provide the bulk of the supply, the report says.

“Having a portfolio approach to electricity generation just gives you the cheapest most efficient system … you really want a diversified portfolio that produces the best results and that trickles through to the hydrogen sector,” says Campbell.   

Cutting costs

Other country’s hydrogen ambitions have also raised eyebrows, with the U.S.’s Hydrogen Shot Summit earlier in September calling for a “1 1 1” goal – $1 per 1 kilo in 1 decade.

“If we can lower the cost of clean hydrogen to $1 per 1 kilogram, we’ll have the means to decarbonize industrial manufacturing … to refuel hydrogen fuel cell trucks and make alternative, low-carbon fuel for planes … to produce clean ammonia and other chemicals … to create longer-duration storage … and so much more,” said the Department of Energy’s Deputy Secretary David Turk.

The plan is potentially too optimistic, without a dedicated, and expensive, push to invest.

Current prices of hydrogen from purely renewable sources produced at a grid-connected hydrolyzer are $8.81 per kilo and seen falling to $5.77 per kilo by 2050, according to the study commissioned by the International Council on Clean Transportation, ‘Assessment of Hydrogen Production Costs from Electrolysis: United States and Europe.’

The high share of virtually baseload hydrogen demand from transport and industry means a high dependence on ‘blue hydrogen’, comprising over 35% of demand in 2050 in all scenarios that exclude a ‘Gigafactory’ for nuclear derived hydrogen, according to another study.

Commissioned by Urenco and conducted by Aurora Energy Research, ‘Decarbonising Hydrogen in a net zero economy’ modelled a range of scenarios on the impacts of differing levels of nuclear advancement on achieving net zero using Britain as a case study.

The analysis found that including nuclear with co-located electrolysers alongside renewable energy sources is economically efficient and reduces total system spending by 6%-9% (net present value from 2021 to 2050).

“If you look at high hydrogen pathways and high nuclear pathways, they are not lower costs, but once you put hydrogen and nuclear together, there are enough complementarities between the hydrogen systems and nuclear generation to benefit each other and reduce overall costs,” said Head of Commissioned Projects at Aurora Energy Research Felix Chow-Kambitsch while presenting the report’s findings at an International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) conference.

Achieving hydrogen volumes required for net-zero without fossil fuels will be challenging without support for electrolytic hydrogen from renewable sources and nuclear, the report found.

“The message is still clear; stronger nuclear pathways pairing with the hydrogen sector can reduce emissions in the next 30-year horizon,” said Chow-Kambitsch.

By Paul Day