Nuclear and Hydrogen Significant Power Sources in the U.S., But at a Higher Cost

Both nuclear and hydrogen are gaining global support as clean and reliable power sources for electricity and other uses; and that would include growing support in the U.S. But the opposition is still in place, along with skeptics who make tangible points about what obstacles need to be overcome.

One of the challenges that nuclear, hydrogen, and fuel cells face is the higher cost of building, operating, and maintaining the power plants compared to other energy sources. That carries over to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well when compared to other alternative fuel vehicles.

It wasn’t that long ago that both of these non-fossil fuel energies were dismissed by many influential leaders. Nuclear faced the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear power plant accidents and radiation leaks. Hydrogen could bring up the Hindenburg disaster and hydrogen nuclear bombs from the 1950s, though these examples have had little to do with how hydrogen has been used to power American spaceships, fuel cell vehicles, power plants, and other uses.

The support has been steadily increasing in recent years. At COP28 in Dubai last year, more than 20 countries from four continents expressed support for tripling nuclear energy capacity by 2050 as a key element of reaching net zero. New legislation and rules from the Biden administration have been propelling a renewed bipartisan push for nuclear power.

The federal government will be providing a $1.5 billion loan to restart the Palisades plant in southwestern Michigan. Announced Wednesday, the 800-megawatt plant that was closed in 2022 is on track to be reopened in late 2025. That came from support from the Biden administration and the state of Michigan. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it would be the first nuclear power plant to be reopened in the U.S. It still faces hurdles, including inspections, testing and the blessing of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, known as the NRC.

Supporters of nuclear power identified by Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) include: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe; President Joe Biden; Bill Gates; film director Oliver Stone, Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Energy; John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate; Carol Browner, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Ken Kimmell, from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Capital Research Center did an August 2023 study on opponents of nuclear energy. Environmental groups made the list including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Resources Institute (WRI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the League of Conservation Voters.

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk has dismissed hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles, there have been fewer opponents of the fuel and technology than nuclear power has faced. Support has increased over the past quarter century in Washington, D.C., California, European Union, Japan, South Korea, and other markets for hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles.

Looking at the cost of producing electricity at power plants illustrates the hurdle that nuclear and fuel cells have to overcome in the near future. (See table, above.) It’s also helpful to look at trends in energy power plant sources over the past decade.

Energy power source trends in the US:

  1. Coal reached its peak powering electricity in the U.S. in 2008, at 1.986 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). It provided 829 billion kWh in 2022. Natural gas took the dominant role around 2015.
  2. Natural gas made up 1,689 billion-kWh or 39.8% of the 4,243 billion kilowatt-hours total in the US in 2022. Renewables powered 913 billion-kWh, or 21.5%. Coal made up 829 billion-kWh or 19.5% of the total. Nuclear provided 772 billion-kWh, or 18.2%. ‘Petroleum and other’ provided 40 billion-kWh, or 0.9% of the total that year.
  3. Renewables have had a slow and steady part of the total power-plant energy sources — about 10.35% of the total energy in 2010, versus 21.5% in 2022.
  4. Fuel cell power plants produced 350 megawatts of power in 2022, or about 8.25% of the total energy supply for the U.S. that year. As of December 2022, there were 205 fuel cell power plants in 147 facilities. Most use pipeline natural gas as the hydrogen source; while some use landfill gas and others use wastewater treatment biogas.

Source: EIA

There are a few signs that nuclear and hydrogen are gaining traction:
Amazon quietly acquired a nuclear-powered data center in Pennsylvania for $650 million, its first in the nuclear space. Amazon Web Services, the tech giant’s cloud computing unit, bought the centre from US power generator Talen Energy, which developed the site adjoining a nuclear power station. AWS will buy electricity from the Susquehanna nuclear power station, which is 130km north-west of Philadelphia, under a 10-year power-purchase agreement.

Operators of several natural gas-fired power plants are exploring the use of hydrogen to supplement or replace natural gas. Hydrogen has the potential for effectively storing energy for electric power generation. Biofuel producers also use hydrogen to produce hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) for use as renewable diesel.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Hydrogen truck maker Nikola Motors has announced that it has opened its first ever H2 refuelling station, for trucks only, in the California city of Ontario, 35 miles (56km) of downtown Los Angeles — on the same road as an existing Shell H2 filling stop for trucks. Nikola Corp plans to build up to 60 hydrogen refueling stations for heavy-duty vehicles in California over the next few years.

Nuclear power is a low-emission source of electricity, providing about 10% of global electricity generation. For those countries where it is accepted, it can support that country’s goals to get away from fossil fuel powered electricity production plants. Along with power plants, nuclear energy can be used an option for producing low-emission heat and hydrogen, according to International Energy Agency. The U.S. uses a lot of nuclear power, making up about 30% of global nuclear electricity generation, according to IEA. One-firth of America’s electricity comes from nuclear power.

Nuclear fusion power has a long way to go, but it is getting backers in venture capital. The global market paid $10 trillion for energy in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), so even a single-digit percentage of that pie would generate revenues in the tens of billions. Oh, and a commercially successful fusion power plant would change the world.

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced it plans to invest 4 trillion yen ($26.46 billion) in a public-private partnership to develop a next-generation hydrogen-powered passenger jet. “It is important for us to build next-generation aircraft based on technologies where Japan is competitive while also contributing to the decarbonization of air transport,” according to that agency.

Japan expects the new sustainable aircraft development to be completed after 2035.

And in other news………..

EPA finalizes rules: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized vehicle pollution emission standards for all vehicles — from light- to heavy-duty. The final rule builds upon EPA’s standards for federal greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks for model years 2023 through 2026, established in 2021, and leverages advances in clean car technology to unlock benefits to Americans ranging from improving public health through reducing smog- and soot-forming pollution from vehicles, to reducing climate pollution, to saving drivers money through reduced fuel and maintenance costs. These standards will phase in over model years 2027 through 2032.

Calstart sees it bringing together the Inflation Reduction Act and with the finalized EPA rules for environmental and economic gains. “Combined with 2022’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), EPA’s finalized standards mark a crucial step forward in combatting climate change and reducing harmful air pollutants emitted by vehicles. The newly finalized vehicle standards, along with the IRA, will accelerate growth of the U.S. electric vehicle market and industry. The growing market for electric vehicles in the U.S. is an unparalleled opportunity for the American auto industry and the beginning of a new era of manufacturing in the United States,” Calstart said in a statement.

Roadmap for securing funding: GNA offers more insight into securing federal funding for grid and fleet upgrades. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) present major funding opportunities, but hundreds of agencies and individual programs might be part of accomplishing a fleet operator’s mission. Cross-sector collaborations and public-private partnerships are a necessity, GNA says.

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