Pilot program to explore potential for clean hydrogen production
The U.S. Department of Energy is funding a pilot program at Exelon's Nine Mile Point plant in New York to investigate the clean hydrogen production potential for nuclear power plants.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Hydrogen has one strong point working in its favor: it's not carbon.
As the world looks to decarbonize industries like long-haul transportation, chemicals, iron and steel in an effort to manage climate change, governments are looking to alternative energy sources like hydrogen to tackle some of these largest and most problematic carbon emission challenges.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and has almost infinite energy potential. It can be transported as a gas by pipelines or in liquid form by ships, similar to liquefied natural gas (LNG). It can also be transformed into electricity and methane to power and heat homes, supply industry, as well as be converted into fuels for all forms of transportation.
There have been false starts for hydrogen consumption growth in the past. What's different this time around is the unqualified commercial success of renewables like solar and wind. They have done hydrogen producers a big favor by fuelling interest within governments and industry in other non-carbon energy and feedstock alternatives like hydrogen.
"Hydrogen is today enjoying unprecedented momentum, driven by governments that both import and export energy, as well as the renewables industry, electricity and gas utilities, automakers, oil and gas companies, major technology firms and big cities," says Dr. Faith Birol, the International Energy Agency's (IEA) Executive Director. "The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future."
However, the main sources for hydrogen production today are from natural gas and coal. The conventional steam methane reforming (SMR) method of producing hydrogen using natural gas as the primary feedstock gives off more than 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of hydrogen produced.
For this element to deliver its full potential in the fight against climate change, it needs to be produced without the use of fossil fuels. One way to produce clean hydrogen is a process called electrolysis. It occurs when an electric potential between two electrodes splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. IEA says that building electrolyzers at locations with excellent renewable resource conditions could become a low-cost supply option for clean hydrogen.
In its report entitled, 'The Future of Hydrogen - Seizing Today's Opportunities', the IEA writes that with declining costs for renewable electricity, in particular from solar and wind, interest is growing in clean hydrogen.
Interest is growing in clean hydrogen, and the U.S. government has recognized this opportunity and the Department of Energy is providing financial support through its H2@Scale Program to investigate if there is an economical way to spur industrial-scale clean hydrogen production from nuclear power plants.
"IEA analysis finds that the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity could fall 30 percent by 2030 as a result of declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production," says the report. "Fuel cells, refuelling equipment and electrolyzers can all benefit from mass manufacturing."
Nuclear power plants can also be included in this conversation because they produce electricity and steam in abundance without using carbon containing feedstocks. The U.S. government has recognized this opportunity and the Department of Energy (DOE) is providing financial support through its H2@Scale Program to investigate if there is an economical way to spur industrial-scale clean hydrogen production from nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power producers are interested. The industry finds itself somewhat between a rock and a hard place when it comes to producing competitive power given the current low price for natural gas and the significantly reduced cost of producing power from renewables like wind and solar over the past 15 years. In addition to providing nuclear power plants with locally-produced, clean hydrogen for use in their own power production processes, the industry and DOE are interested to find out if excess hydrogen production through investment in onsite electrolysis plants could provide a new income stream for the nuclear power industry in the face of competitive disadvantages.
Nuclear power plants require hydrogen to maintain plant water chemistry. It decreases the oxidizing power of the reactor water and reduces corrosion in the pipe and plant materials. Hydrogen is also used to cool the windings of large power plant generators because of its high heat capacity and low density. Both are critical for the reliable operation of the plants.
In addition to providing nuclear power plants with locally-produced, clean hydrogen for use in their own power production processes, the industry and Department of Energy are interested in finding out if excess hydrogen production through investment in onsite electrolysis plants could provide a new income stream for the nuclear power industry.
The DOE has awarded $5 million toward a hydrogen production demonstration project at the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant in Scriba, New York, operated by America's number one provider of carbon-free energy through solar, wind, nuclear and hydro power facilities, Exelon Generation. The company is matching DOE's contribution to the project, which will feature proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer technology from Nel Hydrogen US, a subsidiary of Norway-based Nel ASA.
Exelon plans to start installation of the overall project in the third quarter of 2022 and have the system operating in early 2023. The electrolyzer is a stand-alone system that will be located outside the protected area and be connected to the plant's power buses and supply piping. All safety protocols already established on site will also apply to this new technology and its components.
Electrolysis is more efficient and less expensive if the electric current is passed through steam. All nuclear power plants already produce heat for changing water into steam and the electricity needed to break the steam down into hydrogen and oxygen.
"This project is an innovative opportunity to produce hydrogen on site using the electricity from our clean nuclear power plant to provide hydrogen for plant uses, which will eliminate transporting multiple shipments of hydrogen to the site, further reducing our carbon impact," says Susan Brannan Cole, Exelon Generation Senior Regional Communications Specialist for the Nine Mile Point Nuclear Station.
The site consists of two boiling water reactors capable of producing a combined 1937 megawatts of power, enough to power two million homes and businesses.
While the hydrogen produced by the project will be used by the nuclear power plant, Brannan Cole adds that it will also provide the opportunity to evaluate other uses for the hydrogen. Selecting Nel Hydrogen as its electrolysis equipment supplier occurred through a competitive bid process.
The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $5 million toward a hydrogen production demonstration project at the Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant in Scriba, New York, operated by Exelon Generation. The company is matching DOE's contribution to the project, which will feature proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer technology from Nel Hydrogen US, a subsidiary of Norway-based Nel ASA.
Described as a relatively small demonstration project, about $2.6 million will be spent to install Nel Hydrogen's 1.25 megawatt (MW) MC250 containerized PEM electrolyzer.
"Nel's primary advantage is the many years of commercial experience we have," says Stephen Szymanski, Vice President, Sales and Marketing - Americas for Nel Hydrogen. "It is field experience that really matters the most to our commercial customers."
He says that Nel has an undeniable head start over potential competitors with its 3500 commercial installations worldwide going back in history for almost a century.
"Many competitors are still at a pre-commercial phase of development and their performance claims can't be substantiated in the field," Szymanski says.
Nel Hydrogen offers both PEM electrolyzer technology as well as alkaline electrolyzer technology which he says makes the company unique in the commercial electrolyzer space, adding that other companies will typically offer only one of these technologies and will always be pushing their technology.
Conversely, he says that Nel is able to approach each project opportunity in a technology-neutral way and is able to offer its clients a solution that is best-suited to the application and not just based on a one-size-fits-all approach.
There are a number of partners in this demonstration project tied to the network of national labs working under the DOE umbrella. They include the Argonne National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Given DOE's goal of evaluating the economics of tying hydrogen electrolyzers into existing nuclear power plants, Exelon says that the national labs are providing technical assistance and modeling to evaluate large scale applications using the data from the pilot project.
"One of the elements of the project is to model the economics at a much larger scale where benefits of scale come into play," says Szymanski. "If nuclear power plants can sell the hydrogen at a premium over selling the equivalent electricity, then it is a potential business model that can help them achieve long term financial viability."
Should production of hydrogen at nuclear power plants prove economically viable, says Exelon's Susan Brannon Cole, some of the next logical steps could be installing fuelling stations for vehicles, injecting hydrogen into natural gas pipelines, selling hydrogen commercially and storing hydrogen for use with a fuel cell to make electricity during peak load demand. Ultimately, however, governments will play a significant role to determine what role hydrogen might play.
"The focus right now is on the pilot project, but long term, both state and federal policy will play a large role in determining whether clean hydrogen can help the U.S. decarbonize while maintaining reliability," says Brannon Cole.
She adds that Exelon Generation is still evaluating other potential uses in conjunction with the national labs. The biggest drivers for those decisions are the price of clean hydrogen, the price of power and system efficiency.
Szymanski concludes that hydrogen is the most promising solution for decarbonization that is available and that is why it is getting so much attention across all sectors.