Power plants exist to make electricity, but most also produce a lot of heat. What if they could use that heat for other processes that require thermal energy? Today, roughly 40% of all energy is wasted. More efficient energy use would be better for the environment and for the plant owner. A power plant being used for both electricity and heat is called an integrated energy system. Integrated energy systems could couple nuclear, renewable and fossil energy sources. Such systems offer efficiencies that can lead to energy independence, economic competitiveness, job creation and smarter use of resources.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy supports a national laboratory Integrated Energy Systems (IES) Program. The program conducts research, development and deployment activities to expand the role of nuclear energy beyond supporting the electricity grid. Expanded roles include supplying energy to various industrial, transportation and energy storage applications. Development of integrated energy systems may include multiple energy inputs (e.g., nuclear, renewable, and fossil), multiple energy users (e.g., grid consumers, industrial heat or electricity users, transportation fuel users), and multiple energy storage options (e.g., thermal, electrical and chemical).
Under the right conditions, hydrogen production could offer a lifeline that may prevent some aging U.S. nuclear reactors from retiring early, according to some industry experts.
For carbon-free hydrogen to play a significant role in decarbonization, it will need to be produced in large quantities at low cost to compete with hydrocarbons. In a future power system heavily dependent on intermittent renewables, hydrogen will likely find economical use in power storage for grid balancing.
“We want to produce clean hydrogen,” said Richard Boardman, INL lead for integrated energy systems technology development, in discussing the FuelCell Energy and INL project, funded by DOE’s Nuclear Energy and Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies offices. “We also want to preserve the nuclear industry.”
Future hybrid energy systems could lead to paradigm shifts in clean energy production, national lab researchers and industry leaders predict. Beyond providing flexibility and an abundant supply of clean energy, such systems could support sectors of the economy that are more difficult to decarbonize, such as industry and transportation.
Using nuclear plants to generate heat as well as electricity for non-grid industrial applications could be central to deep decarbonisation efforts beyond being a source of zero-carbon electricity. Speakers at the fifth Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum last week looked at how hydrogen - and nuclear - can contribute to carbon abatement efforts in areas that have so far been hard to decarbonise.