While the Clean Energy Payment Program (CEPP) in the Democrats’ reconciliation bill includes nuclear, carbon capture, and some hydrogen as resources that qualify as “clean,” they are not likely to be economic in time to meet President Biden’s goal of an 80 percent nationwide average clean electricity sector by 2030. These technologies are currently very expensive and clean hydrogen and carbon, capture and sequestration technologies are very energy intensive, using much more energy than the technology they would be replacing.
Carbon, Capture and Sequestration
Carbon capture sequestration is a technology that currently is not commercially economic. It collects carbon emissions from smokestacks and buries them in the ground. One of the reasons that it is not commercially economic today is that capturing carbon dioxide emissions using direct-air-capture technology requires almost as much energy as that contained in the fossil fuels that produced the carbon dioxide in the first place. Direct-air-capture technology works by using giant fans to draw in air with the carbon dioxide bonding to chemicals known as sorbents. When the sorbent is saturated, it is heated to 80 to 100 degrees Celsius to release the captured carbon dioxide.
In 2020, the world used 462 exajoules of energy from fossil fuels, which resulted in 32 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Capturing that carbon dioxide through direct-air-capture would require 448 exajoules, which is equivalent to 124,444 terawatt hours—almost five times the annual global electricity consumption in 2020 (26,813 terawatt hours). That amount of energy does not include what would be required to transport and store the captured carbon dioxide.
The world’s largest facility, Climeworks’ Orca plant, was opened recently in Iceland at a cost of $10 to $15 million. It is expected to capture 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year—about the emissions from 870 cars. The captured carbon dioxide is mixed with water and injected into basalt rock 1 kilometer underground, where it turns into a solid carbonate mineral over a two-year period.
To capture the world’s annual carbon emissions, eight million of these plants would be needed at a cost of $80 to $120 trillion. While there are other firms that believe they can capture and sequester carbon using less energy, their schemes would still amount to about double the current global electricity consumption.
Hydrogen fuel can be produced through several methods. The most common are natural gas reforming and electrolysis. Synthesis gas—a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and a small amount of carbon dioxide—is created by reacting natural gas with high-temperature steam. The carbon monoxide is reacted with water to produce additional hydrogen. This method is the cheapest, most efficient, and most common method to produce hydrogen. Natural gas reforming using steam accounts for the majority of hydrogen produced in the United States annually. The natural gas industry has proposed capturing the carbon dioxide, which would create emissions-free, “blue” hydrogen, but it would still emit more carbon dioxide emissions across its supply chain than just burning natural gas.In electrolysis, an electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity is produced by renewable sources, such as solar or wind, the resulting hydrogen is considered renewable and therefore “clean”. Power-to-hydrogen projects use excess renewable electricity from wind and solar to make hydrogen through electrolysis. Today, very little hydrogen is green, because the process is very energy intensive and expensive. The overall cost comprises the cost of the electrolyzer, including maintenance and replacement of worn-out membranes, the price of the electricity used for the process, and any subsequent costs for drying, cleaning and compression of the gas, as well as transport. In addition, there is not enough excess renewable energy to produce vast amounts of green hydrogen.
Currently, hydrogen is distributed either by pipeline, high-pressure tube trailers, or liquefied hydrogen tankers. Pipeline is the least-expensive way to deliver large volumes of hydrogen, but only about 1,600 miles of pipelines for hydrogen delivery are currently available in the United States. These pipelines are located near large petroleum refineries and chemical plants in Illinois, California, and the Gulf Coast. Transporting compressed hydrogen gas by truck, railcar, ship, or barge in high-pressure tube trailers is expensive and used primarily for distances of 200 miles or less. Hydrogen can be liquefied through cryogenic liquefaction, which cools hydrogen to a temperature where it becomes a liquid, which at atmospheric pressure is -423.17 degrees Fahrenheit. The liquefaction process, however, is expensive and the product must be used fairly quickly at the point of consumption or it will evaporate from the containment vessels.
Mitsubishi Power and fuel storage company Magnum Development are working on a project in Utah to build a storage facility for 1,000 megawatts of clean power, partly by keeping hydrogen in salt caverns, which is scheduled to be operational by 2025. While hydrogen could play a role in energy storage or powering certain types of transportation such as aircraft or long-haul trucks where switching to battery-electric power may be challenging, at current costs, it would be very expensive and therefore commercially uneconomic despite the billions of dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure bill to fund it. BloombergNEF estimates that generating enough green hydrogen to meet a quarter of our energy needs would take more electricity than the world generates today from all sources combined, and an investment of $11 trillion in production, storage and transportation infrastructure.
Georgia Power is building Vogtle nuclear reactors 3 and 4 (each about 1,117 megawatts), which will be the first new nuclear units built in the United States in the last three decades. As of July 2021, unit 3 construction is approximately 98 percent complete, with the total Vogtle 3 & 4 expansion project approximately 92 percent complete. Start of electricity generation is expected in early 2022. Vogtle units 3 and 4 have been inundated by numerous delays and cost overruns. They were originally scheduled to open in 2016. The total cost of the two planned Vogtle reactors is now over $27 billion—more than double the initial estimates approved by state regulators in 2008. Many believe that the huge cost is due to onerous regulation.
Cost overruns doomed the only other new U.S. nuclear-power plant begun this century. In 2017, plans were scrapped to finish a half-built nuclear-power plant in South Carolina. When first proposed in 2008, the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station was expected to cost $11.5 billion, but cost estimates had ballooned to $25.7 billion.
Today, due partly to the high capital cost of large power reactors and partly to the need to service small electricity grids, there is a move to develop smaller units. Small modular reactors are nuclear reactors generally 300 megawatts or less, designed with modular technology and built with short construction times. Four main options are being considered: light water reactors, fast neutron reactors, graphite-moderated high temperature reactors and various kinds of molten salt reactors (MSRs). The first has the lowest technological risk, but the second (FNR) can be smaller, simpler and with longer operation before refueling.
Generally, because of their small size and modularity, small modular reactors could almost be completely built in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, improving the level of construction quality and efficiency. Also, size, construction efficiency and passive safety systems (requiring less redundancy) can lead to easier financing compared to that for larger plants.
However, licensing is potentially a challenge for small modular reactors, as design certification, construction and operation license costs are not necessarily less than for large reactors. The pre-licensing review is essentially a technical discussion, phase 1 of which involves about 5000 hours of staff time, considering the conceptual design. Phase 2 is twice that, addressing system-level design.
President Biden and the Democrats writing the budget reconciliation bill want Americans to believe that they can continue to use fossil fuels and nuclear energy, subject to constraints. However, in reality, the technologies allowed by the plans are very expensive and, in some cases, energy intensive. While they could become economic, they are unlikely to in the time that Biden and the reconciliation bill writers want it done—in just 9 short years to reach 80 percent carbon free electricity.