Three More Nuclear Plant Owners Will Demonstrate Hydrogen Production

FirstEnergy Solutions (FES), Xcel Energy, and Arizona Public Service (APS) will demonstrate hydrogen production at three nuclear plants they own starting in 2020 and 2021. The projects, selected as part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Nuclear Energy’s Advanced Reactor Development Project funding pathway, aim to improve long-term competitiveness of the nuclear sector as more cheap natural gas and renewable power resources flood power markets. 

Funded by the DOE, the demonstrations will take place at FES’ Davis-Besse plant in Ohio, APS’ Palo Verde plant in Arizona, and an Xcel nuclear plant in Minnesota. 

The three utility awards, which the DOE announced on Sept. 10 as part of the sixth round of funding under the December 2017-issued U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development funding opportunity announcement (FOA), follow a similar selection of a first-of-its-kind project spearheaded by Exelon at a still-to-be determined existing nuclear site in an organized power market under the DOE’s H2@Scale concept. Exelon told POWER in August it would soon begin award negotiations with the DOE for up to $3.6 million in federal funding for the $7.2-million project, which will span three years. 

While several national laboratories—including Idaho National Laboratory (INL), National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory—will collaborate on the Exelon hydrogen project, the three projects involving FES, Xcel Energy, and APS, will be spearheaded by INL. 

“These first-of-a-kind projects represent significant advances for improving the long-term economic competitiveness of the light water reactor industry,” said Bruce Hallbert, director of DOE’s Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program, based at INL. “They will enable the production of commodities such as hydrogen in addition to electricity from commercial nuclear power plants. These projects also accelerate the transition to a national hydrogen economy by contributing to the use of hydrogen as a storage medium for production of electricity, as a zero-emitting transportation fuel, or as a replacement for industrial processes that currently use carbon-emitting sources in hydrogen production.”

FES to Produce Hydrogen at Davis Besse

According to INL, FES will receive $9 million in federal funding for a $11.4-million project to develop a light water reactor (LWR) hybrid energy system at the 908-MW Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. The two-year-long project is slated to begin in 2020. 

According to the DOE, FES has already “addressed” major interfaces required for LWR hybrid operations, including dynamic controls to apportion power output between the electrical grid and LTE unit. INL said hydrogen from Davis-Besse “may initially be used to supply public transportation fleets in Ohio, in new direct iron reduction plants being constructed to produce steel products, or for other commercial products now under investigation.” 

The project is significant, INL noted, because it could demonstrate how hydrogen from commercial nuclear operations can be used to produce “green” products and commodities in significant quantities for domestic use and for export to international markets where green and low-carbon attributes are incentivized.

FES, which sought bankruptcy protection in March 2018 after it was financially crippled by market volatility, has been vocal about the flagging competitiveness of its nuclear plants. In April 2018, after its bankruptcy filing, it told PJM Interconnection that it would it would close four uneconomic nuclear units—a total of 4 GW—in the regional transmission organization’s footprint:  Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station by 2020; the 1,268-MW Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Perry, Ohio, in 2021; and the twin-unit 1,872-MW Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 2021. As it did so, FES also took the unprecedented—and hotly debated—step of entreating the DOE to save its beleaguered coal and nuclear plants through a Federal Power Act Section 202c emergency order. As court filings showed, however, FES also worked “to develop and implement outreach to legislative and regulatory officials” in Ohio and Pennsylvania to explore their support for continued operation of FES’s nuclear power plants.” 

This July, after Ohio enacted a nuclear subsidy bill that would essentially provide Davis-Besse and Perry with an an estimated $150 million a year during the 2021 to 2027 period to keep the reactors in service, FES notified PJM of its decision to rescind the March 2018 deactivation notice for the two reactors, and it resumed preparation of a mandatory refueling outage for Davis-Besse, which will take place in spring 2020. 

On Wednesday, FES told POWER that it welcomed the opportunity to partner with the DOE and INL on the hydrogen demonstration at Davis-Besse. “The project will utilize the clean, carbon-free electricity from the nuclear plant to produce hydrogen for the beneficial use by industrial and commercial customers within and around the state of Ohio. It will demonstrate a potential non-electric use of commercial nuclear power plants and another means for revenue generation at this and other commercial nuclear power plants,” it said.

Raymond Lieb, senior vice president of Fleet Engineering for FES, separately noted that the project was possible due in part to Ohio’s support for its nuclear plants. “Thanks to the support provided to our Ohio nuclear plants by the state of Ohio, we are able to work with DOE to explore new methods of keeping nuclear power plants competitive in any economic environment. This is a great opportunity to show that hydrogen can be effectively generated in a carbon-free and safe manner,” he said. 

Xcel Will Explore Hydrogen Production in Minnesota

While the DOE’s press materials did not mention Xcel and APS, INL said that the awards will support a project at an undetermined Xcel Energy nuclear site at one of its two Minnesota plants. That project could begin in 2021. 

To keep its plants competitive, Xcel has reportedly been testing flexible operations at its nuclear plants. “Hydrogen could create an entirely new value stream,” said INL. 

The demonstration project could also help determine if hydrogen production can enhance the company’s growing carbon-free footprint, it added, noting that Xcel has a vision of producing 100% carbon-free energy by 2050. “Redirecting nuclear energy from electricity to hydrogen production could help balance the electrical grid with the increasing amount of wind and solar energy on the system.” 

In a statement, Tim O’Connor, chief nuclear officer, Xcel Energy said the project was important as pursues a lean overhead. ”We’ve challenged our nuclear employees to find innovative ways to operate more efficiently, use technology, pursue new ideas and reduce costs to make our plants more valuable for our customers,” he said. “Projects like this hydrogen demonstration will ensure our nuclear plants continue to help Xcel Energy provide reliable, affordable carbon-free electricity for the Upper Midwest.”

APS Will Produce Hydrogen at Palo Verde for Energy Storage

The APS project is planned for the 2020 to 2022 timeframe at the Palo Verde Generating Station near Phoenix, Arizona. It will employ similar or more advanced hydrogen production technologies than the other two projects, said INL. However, “Hydrogen from Palo Verde may be used as energy storage for use in reverse-operable electrolysis or peaking gas turbines during times of the day when photovoltaic solar energy sources are unavailable and energy reserves in the U.S. Southwest are low, and could also be used to support a burgeoning hydrogen transportation fuel market,” INL said. 

“Experience from this pilot project will offer valuable insights into methods for flexible transitions between electricity and hydrogen generation missions in solar-dominated electricity markets—and demonstrate how hydrogen may be used as energy storage to provide electricity during operating periods when solar is not available,” it noted. 

In a statement, Bob Bement, APS executive vice president and chief nuclear officer, noted that the pilot “combines advanced technology with existing infrastructure to integrate carbon-free nuclear power with the desert Southwest’s abundant solar energy. It is an exciting opportunity to advance a clean energy future for Arizona and beyond,” he said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)

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