US DOE releases hydrogen plan

18 November 2020

DOE's Hydrogen Program Plan US Department of Energy (DOE) released its Hydrogen Program Plan to provide a strategic framework for the Department’s hydrogen research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities.

The programme is a coordinated DOE effort to advance the affordable production, transport, storage, and use of hydrogen across different sectors of the economy.  The Plan involves participation from the Offices of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), Fossil Energy (FE), Nuclear Energy (NE), Electricity (OE), Science (SC), and coordinates with the Advanced Research Program Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). The Plan serves as the overarching document to set the strategic direction of the Hydrogen Program, and to complement the technical and programmatic multi-year plans from each DOE Office engaging in hydrogen RD&D activities.

"For decades, DOE has supported the development of technologies to complement the production of hydrogen fuel from our traditional sources,” noted Deputy Secretary of Energy Mark W Menezes. "The RD&D activities outlined in the Plan will contribute to this important DOE-wide effort to support our all-of-the-above energy strategy."

The 55-page Hydrogen Program Plan reinforces DOE’s commitment to develop the technologies that can enable hydrogen expansion in the USA, and highlights the importance of collaboration both within DOE and with stakeholders in industry, academia, and the states to achieve that goal.

A note to stakeholders, signed by the heads of the six DOE offices involved, including NE Assistant Secretary Rita Baranwal, says realising the true potential for hydrogen “requires a commitment to continued research and development as well as ramping up demonstrations and deployments with the private sector to achieve scale”. Unlike other fuels, hydrogen “requires more integration of the fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy systems, and it will take an integrated approach from all energy sectors to realise the full potential and benefits of hydrogen”.

The new Plan updates and expands on previous versions including the 2006 Hydrogen Posture Plan and the DOE Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Program Plan, and provides a coordinated high-level summary of hydrogen related activities across DOE. It reflects DOE’s “focus on conducting coordinated RD&D activities to enable the adoption of hydrogen technologies across multiple applications and sectors”.

The Plan builds upon aspects in the individual DOE office plans and documents.

DOE says hydrogen is “part of a comprehensive energy portfolio that can enable energy security and resiliency and provide economic value and environmental benefits for diverse applications across multiple sectors”. It “can be derived from a variety of domestically available primary sources, including renewables; fossil fuels with carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS); and nuclear power”.

In the section on hydrogen production, DOE notes that “large-scale centralized hydrogen production could be co-located with current nuclear facilities”. There are a number of processes that split water into hydrogen and oxygen using electric, thermal, or photonic (light) energy from diverse, sustainable domestic sources (such as solar, wind, nuclear, and others), DOE says.

Nuclear hybrid systems

A small section on nuclear hybrid systems on page 32 notes a growing interest in integrating hydrogen production at nuclear power plants “as a means to enhance load following capabilities, utilize unused energy, and provide an additional revenue stream”.

For example, a 1000MWe nuclear plant “can produce about 41,000 tonnes of hydrogen in a year, assuming the plant produces electricity for 70% of the time and hydrogen for 26% of the time (with 4% downtime for maintenance)”. Leveraging nuclear-generated electricity and heat, hydrogen can be efficiently produced using low- or high-temperature electrolyzer technologies, and utilised onsite to service hydrogen needs of the nuclear plant (e.g., in turbine generator cooling), or exported/monetized for other end uses.

“While nuclear hybrid systems are not yet ready for full-scale commercial deployment, pilot projects currently underway at existing nuclear plants are expected to rapidly resolve many remaining uncertainties, accelerating their availability for full-scale implementation. In addition, techno-economic analysis—including market assessments for a number of specific nuclear power plants—has identified the potential economic benefits of producing hydrogen through different onsite electrolyzer options, including those currently being pursued via pilot projects and other technologies,” the report notes.

On page 39, DOE says NE is working with partners in EERE and industry to conduct RD&D to enable commercial-scale hydrogen production using heat and electricity from nuclear energy systems. “In addition to emissions-free electricity, nuclear reactors produce large amounts of heat, which can be used to improve the economics of hydrogen production.” NE's efforts related to hydrogen production include:

  • Demonstration of both high-temperature and low-temperature electrolysis systems at operating light water reactors that can provide the low-cost heat necessary for these processes to produce hydrogen economically.
  • Modelling, simulation, and experimentation to develop and advance concepts and technologies needed to integrate hydrogen production methods with existing and future reactors in ways that optimize the system-level economic, environmental, and safety performance as they operate in concert with other generation sources and end-use technologies.
  • Development of advanced reactors that will operate at very high temperatures, making them well suited for promising new thermally driven hydrogen production processes.
  • NE and EERE have collaboratively initiated hydrogen production pilot projects to demonstrate the initial feasibility of such systems at currently operating US nuclear power plants.

INL to work with Xcel Energy and FuelCell Energy on demonstration projects

DOE in October selected two projects to advance flexible operation of light-water reactors with integrated hydrogen production systems to receive cost-shared funding through NE’s US Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development funding opportunity announcement, in collaboration with EERE’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

Under one of those projects, Xcel Energy will work with Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to demonstrate a system that uses nuclear steam and electricity to split water. Under the other project, FuelCell Energy will collaborate with INL to demonstrate and validate a solid oxide electrolysis cell hydrogen production system for integration into NPPs.

Xcel Energy and INL announced on 9 November that, together with more than $10 million in federal funding, they will investigate how to use nuclear energy to make hydrogen. Pairing high-temperature steam electrolysis (HTSE) with commercial heat, Xcel and INL will use a Minnesota nuclear plant to split water for the effort. They hope this hydrogen could be used to power vehicles or offered to other industrial sectors that utilize hydrogen, such as steel or ammonia production.

“This is a game-changer for both nuclear energy and carbon-free hydrogen production for numerous industries,” said Richard Boardman, national technical lead for DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program’s Flexible Plant Operations and Generation Pathway. “It offers a view of the energy structures of the future, which will integrate systems to maximise energy use, generator profitability, and grid reliability, all while minimising carbon emissions.”

The new project is the first of its kind in pairing a commercial electricity generator with HTSE technology. It builds on a project launched in 2019 to demonstrate how hydrogen production facilities could be installed at operating nuclear power plants. The project will demonstrate HTSE using heat and electricity from one of Xcel Energy’s nuclear plants, most likely the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station.

A recent analysis under DOE’s [email protected] initiative, led by the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office, estimated that hydrogen produced by HTSE at a nuclear plant could be cost competitive in today’s market. The report was published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Today, a number of nuclear power plants could produce cost-competitive hydrogen – and, with additional electrolyzer R&D and more installations, many more nuclear plants could in the future,” said Mark Ruth, a group manager with NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Centre, who is lead author of the report.

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