When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, energy experts have developed solutions for some big challenges.
Innovations in battery and charging technologies, for example, have positioned electric vehicles well for the transportation industry of tomorrow. In addition, light water nuclear reactors, small modular and advanced reactors working in tandem with renewables and energy storage could provide reliable and flexible baseload power for the grid and heat for industry.
But some energy challenges are more difficult to overcome. How to provide reliable, carbon-free electricity for remote operations and military installations? What’s the best way to fuel massive freighters and disaster relief efforts? How, in a developing country with an unreliable electricity grid, can the operators of an aluminum plant or a water purification plant get the stable and reliable energy they need?
A new type of nuclear reactor could help answer these questions while providing a basis for renewable energy, if the fledgling technology can survive some growing pains, according to a new report from researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Microreactors, small nuclear reactors producing up to 20 megawatts of electricity or equivalent amounts of heat, were originally designed for small applications far from the centralized power grid, such as remote communities and military bases. Most microreactor designs would be built in a factory and shipped in freight containers to locations around the world.
When they arrive, these so-called “nuclear batteries” or “fission batteries” could be located on less than an acre and plug into a mini or micro power grid with very few infrastructure upgrades. There they could provide electricity for decades with minimal operation and maintenance costs.
The INL report, Global Market Analysis of Microreactors, identifies potential markets for microreactors in 63 countries and assesses their commercialization potential between 2030 and 2050.
OPERATE THE NUMBERS
The key to making these reactors a reality is finding niche markets where the numbers work, said David Shropshire, nuclear economist at INL. Shropshire co-authored the report with Dr Geoffrey Black of Boise State University and Dr Kathleen Araújo of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies Energy Policy Institute in Boise State.
“The share of nuclear power in the energy market is expected to decline over the next decades, mainly due to the decommissioning of old light water reactors,” he said. “But nuclear could potentially increase shares in the future if you really consider the non-traditional applications of these new reactors in future markets.”
Currently, light water reactors provide about half of the country’s carbon-free electricity generation. In the future, advanced nuclear technologies such as small modular reactors and microreactors could provide an essential basis for the expansion of renewable energy by replacing coal-fired power plants, producing heat for industry and providing energy. network services such as load tracking and black starts.
Small modular reactors may only represent a small percentage of the world’s carbon-free energy future, but they could deliver carbon reductions where other technologies are insufficient.
“We’re not talking about your grandfather’s nuclear anymore,” Shropshire continued. “We’re talking about using microreactors to help fill some specific niche markets. The question is whether microreactors can be really economical in these markets.
Overall, microreactor developers must overcome “some significant challenges” in order to balance market demands, technological performance, costs, regulatory compliance and public acceptance, the report’s authors said.
SEARCHING FOR MARKETS WITH HIGH ENERGY DEMAND
For years, nuclear experts have considered providing power to isolated communities in places like Alaska as a potential use for microreactors. Part of that is because remote communities typically use diesel-powered generators, which is expensive to haul long distances.
While microreactors might still be a good solution for remote communities, Shropshire and his colleagues looked for additional options. “We were looking for markets with fairly high energy demands compared to a village that might have limited opportunities to expand its resource base,” he said. “Industrial uses, such as mining, could be better suited. “
Since many microreactors would be based on advanced reactor designs operating at higher temperatures, the reactors could provide heat for district heating systems, as well as electricity and for commercial and industrial applications.
Other potential applications include the use of a microreactor as the backbone of an isolated and integrated energy system. An increase in the use of mini-grids in developing countries such as Africa could provide opportunities for microreactors. Instead of competing with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, microreactors could support renewables as the backbone of these systems.
NUCLEAR AS A FOUNDATION FOR THE EXPANSION OF RENEWABLES
Microreactors could help facilitate the expansion of renewables in these systems by providing a reliable source of power and the flexibility to operate with varying sources.
“We think microreactors could be a good option to balance and provide resilience for wind and solar,” said Shropshire. “The question is, ‘How do you keep the cost reasonable? “
Likewise, microreactors could be integrated into emerging global megalopolises with underdeveloped power grids to supply specific applications with high energy needs, such as a water purification (desalination) plant, a water refinery aluminum or a hydrogen production facility. This way, these facilities can continue to provide essential services even when the power grid is overloaded or in poor condition.
OTHER NICHE MARKETS
Another potential market for microreactors is power for disaster relief efforts. Following, for example, a hurricane or earthquake, power outages can last for months. A highly transportable microreactor could provide electricity or heat for essential services such as hospitals and water purification facilities in place of diesel generators.
In the future, microreactors could also find use to power merchant ships and other large marine vessels. “Currently the container ships use a lot of super dirty fuel that they have to carry to propel the ship,” said Shropshire. “It’s a waste and it’s polluting.
MICROREACTORS COULD HELP CLOSE THE GAP
Ultimately, microreactors face a number of hurdles, particularly cost, public opinion, and regulatory challenges, before they can play a role in a carbon-free energy future.
It is particularly important to meet cost targets. “…[F]or microreactors to achieve deep market penetration, specific and aggressive cost targets will have to be met, ”the authors said.
However, in most cases, microreactors would not compete with cheaper centralized power sources, but would rather operate in niche markets such as isolated systems – dependent on diesel or gas generators – with significantly lower energy costs. higher.
The analysis showed that regions with increasing energy demands such as Eastern Europe and Asia could offer many opportunities for microreactors in distributed applications with small modular reactors. Even in the United States and Western Europe, where nuclear’s share is expected to decline or remain stable, microreactors have great potential where they could replace expensive carbon-emitting energy sources while supporting renewable energies. “All of these uses are niche markets that are difficult to decarbonize,” Shropshire said.
If industry can find these markets and build enough microreactors – at the scale of hundreds of reactors by 2040 and thousands by 2050 – industry could reap the benefits of standardizing the reactors produced. in series to reduce costs and make microreactors a viable option for them. niche energy needs.
“…[M]Microreactors could help close the zero carbon gap by 2050 by replacing fossil sources for electric and non-electric uses and helping the rise of variable renewable sources in the energy system, ”the authors said. .
The INL is a national laboratory of the United States Department of Energy (DOE) that performs work in each of the DOE’s strategic areas: energy, national security, science, and the environment. The INL is the national research and development center in the field of nuclear energy. The day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.
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