The United States’ first hydrogen plant fueled by nuclear energy has just powered up in New York.
The moment reflects two trends converging in the past few years.
Nuclear is making a comeback as an electricity source around the world at the same time support is growing for hydrogen to power the industrial base of our economies.
Constellation Energy, which operates the largest number of U.S. nuclear plants, has in the last couple weeks begun producing a small amount of clean hydrogen in a pilot project that pairs a 1.25-megawatt (MW) electrolyzer with its Nine Mile Point nuclear plant in upstate New York.
In an earnings call last month, the company’s chief financial officer called the Inflation Reduction Act, which directs nearly $370 billion toward clean energy, “transformational” and said it accelerated some projects.
“We continue to believe that hydrogen produced by nuclear plants will play a critical role in addressing climate change by helping to decarbonize hard-to-decarbonize sectors,” said Dan Eggers, Constellation’s CFO.
The company, which is also part of two separate efforts seeking federal funding for hydrogen hub projects, plans to start commercially producing at least 30,000 tons of hydrogen a year at an Illinois nuclear plant by 2026.
The energy crisis stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine, coupled with growing urgency to tackle climate change by moving away from fossil fuels, has compelled governments in the U.S., Europe and Asia to recommit to nuclear power, both at existing plants and with new kinds of reactors, as solutions.
At the same time, companies, governments and investors are taking an interest in clean hydrogen for its potential use as a versatile energy source in carbon-intensive industries like steelmaking and heavy transportation.
Hydrogen today is produced almost entirely from unabated natural gas and coal and is used almost exclusively in the fertilizers and chemicals sectors.
The nascent efforts underway to produce cleaner hydrogen have mostly focused on using natural gas plants equipped with carbon capture equipment or renewable power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis.
That is starting to change.
The European Commission recently adopted rules to make it easier to produce clean hydrogen from nuclear power, in a nod to demands from France, which gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear.
In the U.S., nuclear power provides roughly a fifth of the nation’s electricity and half of its carbon-free power.
“Traditional and advanced nuclear reactors are well-suited to provide this constant heat and electricity needed to produce clean hydrogen, which could open new markets for nuclear power,” the U.S. Energy Department said late last year when highlighting four such projects, including Constellation’s.
The government is directing record amounts of money toward clean hydrogen. The Energy Department set a goal of ramping up production from “nearly zero levels” to 10 million metric tons by 2030 and 50 million metric tons by 2050.
The U.S. Congress authorized $9.5 billion under the 2021 infrastructure law for clean hydrogen, including to create several regional hydrogen hubs that house infrastructure developing it. At least one of the hubs will focus on nuclear power, the Energy Department has said. Congress also provided tax breaks for hydrogen in the IRA.
Other utilities are also likely to pursue nuclear-powered hydrogen.
Five major utilities—Duke Energy, Dominion Power, Tennessee Valley Authority, Southern Company and Louisville Gas and Electric Company & Kentucky Utilities Company—joined six southeastern states and the engineering firm Battelle to apply for federal funding. Except LGE & KU, four of these utilities together operate nearly one-fourth of the 55 active nuclear plants in the country.
When reached for comment, the four companies declined to elaborate on the potential use of nuclear to make clean hydrogen, with Duke and Dominion officials saying they intend to use both renewable and nuclear resources.
Experts said nuclear power has advantages in hydrogen production.
“Nuclear power has an edge over variable renewables because it can operate around the clock to produce hydrogen, while wind and solar power remain as intermittent as the resource itself,” said Jon-Michael Murray, nuclear policy manager for the environmental nonprofit Clean Air Task Force.
One big hurdle nuclear-powered hydrogen may face is how the 2022 law is implemented.
Maria Martinez, director of policy and advocacy for Breakthrough Energy, sounded a note of caution about whether existing nuclear generators will benefit from the hydrogen production tax credit, among others. “That will largely depend on how the U.S. Treasury implements these new credits and writes the rules around carbon accounting,” she said.
As with most clean energy, high cost is another challenge. Electricity prices and equipment costs determine hydrogen’s price.
Hydrogen from natural gas is still cheapest, provided natural gas prices stay low. But hydrogen from nuclear and solar power become competitive when gas prices soar, according to a recent report from the Nuclear Energy Agency within the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.
The Energy Department will decide which coalitions it will select to build hydrogen hubs this fall.
Editor’s note: Maria Martinez is U.S. policy and advocacy director at Breakthrough Energy, which also supports Cipher.