Experts Discuss Four Powerful Ways Nuclear Can Accelerate the Transition to Net Zero at the ARPA-E Energy Summit
Original article written and published by Anthropocene Team
DENVER — The ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit 2022, featured the panel “Beyond Baseload: Nuclear’s Role in the New Energy Landscape,” where Anthropocene’s partners and colleagues shed light on the applications and benefits of nuclear energy beyond baseload power. Moderator Dr. Jenifer Shafer (ARPA-E) was joined by Dr. Rita Baranwal (Westinghouse), Dr. Charles Forsberg (MIT), Dr. Jessica Lovering (Good Energy Collective), and Eric Ingersoll (TerraPraxis) to discuss four viable solutions for accelerating the transition to net zero.
- Leveraging small-scale nuclear to power communities
Lovering highlighted the role of load following and the advantages of small-scale nuclear power, including its potential to increase community control and ownership of the power infrastructure. Currently, community scale or microgrids are fossil-powered, and deploying battery and solar-powered microgrids is still expensive and difficult to provide businesses with reliable electricity while also meeting residential heating and cooling needs. In her organization’s research, 60% of community members said they want greater ownership and control over which types of energy sources are used to generate power for their area. This is one reason for increased interest in microgrids, powered by advanced, small-scale nuclear reactors. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), micro-reactors and nuclear batteries on microgrids would open new markets, provide greater local control, and deliver reliable energy for hospitals and other critical services, as well as providing resiliency in the event of natural disasters and outages.
2. Advancing reactor technology to spur adoption
Baranwal agreed. Her company, Westinghouse, focuses on technology, services, and commissioning of conventional nuclear reactors, SMRs and micro-reactors. She emphasized that 55% of clean electricity in the US is generated by nuclear power, and that nuclear power is and always has been a source of clean energy. To spur adoption of nuclear power, Westinghouse is driving several significant advancements. The company has plans to successfully deploy its micro-reactors in areas such as Alaska, where diesel is prohibitively expensive, and Puerto Rico, where resilient, reliable power is vital due to extreme climate events. Baranwal envisions a future where microreactors can power local communities globally.
Westinghouse is also working on the next-generation of nuclear technologies, including Lead-cooled Fast Reactors (LFRs), which would be ideal for mid-size and large communities, and the AP1000 Pressurized Water Reactor, which is already deployed at sites in China and is soon to be deployed in the U.S. Baranwal closed her segment by noting that nuclear can also be used for applications in addition to electricity, such as desalination of water and heat for industrial uses.
3. Repurposing coal plants into clean energy hubs
Ingersoll outlined the TerraPraxis “Repowering Coal” system, a fast, low-cost, and repeatable strategy to repower hundreds of existing coal plants that would otherwise continue to burn coal, and whose closure is likely to encounter fierce political resistance and cause economic harm to communities. He showed that up to 2 TW, or 7,000, coal power plants could be re-powered by 2050.
TerraPraxis’ approach relies on thermal energy storage to repurpose coal plants into dispatchable generators and clean energy hubs making hydrogen and other valuable energy products. This ambitious project will design a process to repower the world’s coal fleets via a fast, repeatable system resulting in carbon-negative power plants that are cheaper to operate than before and can ensure continuity for communities reliant on these plants for energy and jobs. Much progress has been made already, including developing a cloud-based tool for project development with Microsoft, and engaging supply chain partners like MIT, an architecture and engineering firm, the University of Buffalo, and coal plant operators. The repowering the potential to generate carbon-free electricity for under $35/MWh.
4. Nuclear power-assisted liquid hydrocarbon biofuels and chemical feedstocks to replace crude oil
If oil is decarbonized, half of the U.S. economy will be decarbonized as well, and this massive task requires a lot of power. Forsberg discussed how to replace all crude oil with nuclear-assisted, liquid hydrocarbons, biofuels, and chemical feedstocks. The reasons are clear: almost half of U.S. energy consumed by the final customer is in the form of liquid hydrocarbons made from crude oil, and the heat and hydrogen inputs required in the U.S. constitute the largest market for nuclear energy in the world. He noted that it is possible to produce and burn liquid hydrocarbons from biomass without any net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Biomass is typically 40% oxygen. To remove this oxygen to create hydrocarbon liquids, there are two options. The first is to use biomass as (1) a feedstock, (2) an energy source to operate the process and (3) a supply of carbon to remove the biomass oxygen as carbon dioxide. The second option is to use external heat and hydrogen to remove the oxygen as water and produce liquid hydrocarbons. The use of massive quantities of external heat and hydrogen for hydrocarbon liquid fuels production reduces the biomass feedstock per unit of liquid hydrocarbon product by more than a factor of two and enables use of feedstocks not suitable for traditional biorefineries. External nuclear heat and hydrogen at the biorefinery enables reductions in cellulosic feedstock requirements so there is sufficient feedstock to replace all crude oil. This strategy would decarbonize half the U.S. economy and be the largest single use of nuclear energy if implemented.