Economical Production of Hydrogen is Gassed, Energy Independence Jeopordized

Introduction

Hydrogen is the logical, clean burning, fuel that will be used to replace gasoline for automobile and truck transportation.  Development of an economical method to produce gaseous hydrogen is a key element needed to acquire energy independence. Development of  the hydrogen economy, and real progress for energy independence,  is  being delayed in favor of renewable energy sources.

The Obama Administration has put the Next Generation Nuclear Plant project on the back burner. The administration strongly favors funding wind, solar and biofuels. Funding to support high temperature generation nuclear plant development has been virtually eliminated when compared to the funding for renewables.  As a result, efforts to build the nuclear hydrogen production demonstration plant have been stopped. The plant was initially planned to operate by 2021. Currently the DOE  has no firm schedule for final design, DOE/Industry participation, construction, testing or operation.

Condensed History

During the first half of George W. Bush Administration, the Department of Energy invested in early program planning and limited R&D efforts for very high-temperature reactor concepts. This effort led to the beginning of the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 formally authorized the NGNP project and divided the project into a Phase I and Phase II activity, Ref. 1. The first phase included validating and selecting the appropriate reactor technology, support for R&D efforts, concept design and safety analyses. Phase I activities also included establishing a  50/50 cost share partnership between the DOE and private industry. The DOE plan for Phase II was to complete, with industry participation and funding support, a final design for the  high temperature nuclear reactor and to construct a plant to demonstrate  economical production of hydrogen. In addition the Phase 2 plan was to obtain,  from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a license for construction,  testing and operating the new plant.

The “DOE Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative” was presented to the AICH Annual Meeting on November 5, 2007.  The presentation is contained in the Ref. 2 document. Ref. 2 identifies the need for nuclear hydrogen production and discusses the operation of the high temperature electrolysis laboratory at the Idaho National Laboratory.

The DOE submitted a report to Congress entitled “Next Generation Nuclear Plant” in April 2010,  ref. 3. The report discusses two major types of high temperature gas reactors designs, the pebble bed and the prismatic design. It is reported that test reactors for the pebble bed and prismatic design are presently operating in China and Japan. Ref. 3 addresses the plan to have the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee launch a programmatic review of the NGNP project in September 2010.

Benefits of the NGNP (Ref. 1)

  • Zero greenhouse gas emissions and enhances energy security
  • Reduces the need to burn fossil fuels to generate steam, electricity and heat for industrial production.
  • Provides a stable price for gaseous hydrogen fuel, independent of fossil fuel availability and price fluctuations.
  • Reduces the need for natural gas and allows increased availability for home heating.

Key Accomplishments (Ref. 1)

The DOE requested the the Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (NEAC) to review the Phase I Project activities, on August 20, 2010, and to advise them as to whether the Project was ready to proceed to its second phase. The NEAC completed their review and responded to the DOE on June 30, 2011. The NEAC key findings are summarized below.

  1. Review of the R&D activities, found no technological barriers to impede the continuance of the project at this time.
  2. The Phase I plan was to develop two reactor core designs, the pebble-bed and the prismatic core design. During mid 2010, the design team for the pebble-bed design was disbanded. As a result the conceptual design for the prismatic core was found to be substantially more complete.
  3. Initial planning for the NGNP was to locate the demonstration plant adjacent to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). INL  discussions with potential industrial partners indicated that the demonstration plant, more appropriately, should be located adjacent to an industrial plant. The industrial plant could then more efficiently utilize the particular product (hydrogen, steam heat, electricity, etc.) of the plant. The NEAC stated that is essential that an alternate site be identified to finalize the NGNP design details and address key licensing questions associated with the plant design and location.
  4. As of June 2011, there was no 50/50 cost share partnership, as planned for, in place to carry the project forward.

Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee Recommendations to the DOE (Ref. 1)

  1. Accelerate the formation of a public-private partnership.
  2. Additional government options should be offered to partnership members that would be similar to those available for renewable energy sources. Renewable incentive options include loan guarantees, tax credits, licensing delay insurance, etc.
  3. Continue to engage the NRC for necessary licensing activities to ensure that the regulatory framework for this new reactor technology is ready to support commercialization.
  4. Expedite the NGNP deployment efforts. The effort should include:
  •  Select a single reactor core design.
  • Select a partnership.
  •  Focusing on the R&D needed to support the selected design to accelerate the initial deployment effort.
  • The NGNP demonstration plant should be sited at an appropriate location defined by the industrial partnership.

DOE Response to Congress, October 2011 (Ref. 4)

“Given current fiscal constraints, competing priorities, projected cost of the prototype and inability to reach agreement with industry on cost share, the Department will not proceed with the Phase 2 design activities at this time.”

NGNP Project Funding and Activity for FY 2013 (Ref. 5)

Funding for the NGNP is allocated under the heading, ” Advanced Reactor Concepts.” Funding for the project has been in steady decline, by a factor of  4.4,  from FY 2011 to FY 2013. The requested funding for the project, in FY 2013, is $21.2 million. The reduction in requested funding reflects decreased scope thereby enabling increased funding for other near-term reactor issues.

The DOE activity for FY 2013 calls for continuing R&D on very high temperature fuels, graphite and key issues requiring resolution in establishing a licensing framework.

Author Summary and Recommendations

A robust effort to develop the capability to economically produce gaseous hydrogen was initiated during the last Bush Administration. The NGNP project has been reduced to a minor R&D activity with no plan to develop, with private investors, a demonstration plant for hydrogen production. Hydrogen is a viable, clean burning, fuel capable of replacing gasoline and diesel fuel. Using hydrogen as a fuel will provide the energy independence that we have been working toward, and paying for, since 1957. High temperature reactors are capable of converting water into its elements of hydrogen and oxygen more economically and environmentally cleaner then the conventional electrolysis process including the process of converting fossil fuels into hydrogen.

It is interesting to compare the FY 2013 DOE request for funding the NGNP project, for $21.2 million, with other DOE renwable programs.

                                                                                FY 2013

Biomass and Biorefinery Systems                     $270 million

Solar Energy Technologies Program                 $310 million

Wind Energy Program                                            $95 million

The DOE million dollar expenditures, presented above, are very modest compared to the tens of billions of our tax dollars that are being spent to subsidize these three renewables. The subsidies include government guaranteed loans. Currently some of the loans are in default. Tax incentives,  lost revenue to the Department of  Treasury, are being provided to investors as incentives to purchase and build solar and wind farms. Our tax dollars are given, as an outright gift, to investors as an incentive to purchase and install wind and solar farms, and to build and operate biorefinery plants. Many wind turbines and solar electric assemblies are being purchased abroad (with our tax money) for installation in the U.S.

The renewable programs are not driving our energy needs toward energy independence. Continuation of our current policy will result in our continued dependence on fossil fuels for transportation. As solar and wind replace  gas and coal fired electric power plants, the consumer cost of electricity will increase substantially. For each year that the development of  economical gaseous hydrogen production is stopped, we will witness another year of buying oil from the middle east.

If you agree that we need to change our energy policy in favor of supporting the NGNP project, please contact your representatives in Washington.

References

1. Letter to: Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, U.S. Department of Energy from William F. Martin, Chairman, Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, Review of the NGNP project for Phase 2 Readiness, June 30, 2011.

2. Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, Evans, R.J., (retired) U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, AICHE Annual Meeting, November 5, 2007.

3. Next Generation Nuclear Plant, A Report to Congress, Prepared by The U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, April 2010.

4. Letter to: The honorable Dianne Feinstein, Chairman, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, Committee on Appropriations, United States Senate, from: The Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, on the NGNP project, October 17, 2011.

5. Department of Energy, FY 2013 Congressional Budget Request, DOE/CF-0077, February 2012

Author’s Postscript

It has taken several months to gather the information needed to write this blog. I started in September 2012 and finally obtained sufficient information by the middle of November 2012. I have records of the many unanswered telephone and email requests for information to the DOE. I requested, via email, the office of U.S. Representative Betty Sutton, from Ohio, to obtain the desired information that is available from the DOE. Her office replied that they lacked understanding of my request and suggested that I obtain the information on my own. I must give credit to the office of U.S. Representative Jim Renacci, of Ohio, for obtaining within a couple of days the Ref. 2 report. After several phone calls and emails to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, I was advised, in late October, of a contact person at the DOE that could provide additional information. This person provided me with copies of the Ref. 1 and Ref. 4 sources.