It was always going to happen – one of the new public US clean energy companies would form a link with the nuclear lobby, and attempt to use nuclear power to make hydrogen. This week it is the turn of Westinghouse Electric to drag in Bloom Energy in a deal to attach its Solid Oxide Technology to the many Westinghouse nuclear plants in the US.
The US still has some 55 nuclear power plants, almost exclusively older designs, many of them supplied by Westinghouse. By design older nuclear plants need to keep running at a flat level of output and this makes it tough to sell electricity from them during the post-midnight hours when the least amount of electricity is required – and it is thought this cheap electricity might be used to power electrolysis to make so called Pink hydrogen. Rethink Energy thinks that while this may make existing nuclear plants slightly less loss-making, it is not enough of a stimulus to save the nuclear industry.
The two have entered into a Letter of Intent to pursue hydrogen production in the commercial nuclear power market and hope to identify clean hydrogen projects across the nuclear industry. Potentially the entire nuclear fleet may have a process retrofitted to improve profitability where they can find sufficient funding to go ahead and such a move will at least add impetus to the development of the hydrogen marketplace.
“Solid oxide technology is well suited for nuclear applications, efficiently harnessing steam to further improve the economics of hydrogen production. High temperature electrolysis is already garnering attention and accolades as a cost-effective and viable solution to create low-cost, clean hydrogen, which is critical to meeting aggressive decarbonization goals,” said Rick Beuttel, Hydrogen VP at Bloom Energy
After a checkered history toying with polluting Solid Oxide Fuels cells, Bloom shifted in 2020 to making hydrogen fuel cells using a similar high temperature process, encouraged by the emerging hydrogen business and discouraged by the CO2 pollution that came from its old process. But it is this high temperature (around 800 °C) that can be supplied through the steam in a nuclear turbine.
Bloom calls its technology Hydrogen Servers which are a form of reversible fuel cell – an electrolyzer when running in reverse.
Westinghouse and Bloom Energy say they will jointly develop an optimized and large-scale, high temperature integrated electrolysis system for the nuclear industry. The idea is to run it 24/7 using the continuous steam output from nuclear plants.
“Through this collaboration, we are committed to delivering an economical solution for large-scale hydrogen production in the nuclear industry, which further supports the path to net zero carbon emissions,” said Pam Cowan, Westinghouse President of Americas Operating Plant Services.
You would expect them to talk about this being economical, but to our thinking this is unlikely to survive beyond the first 5 years of the hydrogen industry and we see it as a stop-gap temporary exercise, which will not fundamentally change nuclear economics.
Westinghouse slammed into an economic wall when it tried to rejuvenate the nuclear industry with a new design in 2017. It had already been sold to Toshiba in the noughties, and was acquired in 2018 out of bankruptcy by Brookfield Business Partners. It only retained any value at all because of so many US power companies relying on it and the associated US government loan guarantees. The outcome of this is unlikely to be any different.