Prairie Island

A photograph of Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant in Welce, Minn.

Idaho National Laboratory is working with a Minnesota-based company on a system to use a nuclear plant’s steam and electricity to split water.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced more than $10 million in funding for the project on Oct. 8. The hydrogen produced would be used at Xcel Energy’s power plant near Minneapolis initially, but it could eventually be sold to other industries.

It is the first pairing in the U.S. of a commercial electricity generator with high-temperature steam electrolysis and could benefit sectors such as steel and ammonia production, INL said in a news release. Hydrogen can also be used to power vehicles. The goal of the project is to help nuclear power plants make commodities such as hydrogen in addition to electricity and builds on a project launched last year to show how hydrogen production facilities could be installed at nuclear power plants. It will likely be done using heat and electricity from Xcel’s Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station.

“This is a game-changer for both nuclear energy and carbon-free hydrogen production for numerous industries,” said Richard Boardman, national technical lead for the DOE Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program’s Flexible Plant Operations and Generation Pathway. “It offers a view of the energy structures of the future, which will integrate systems to maximize energy use, generator profitability and grid reliability all while minimizing carbon emissions.”

Today, industrial-grade hydrogen is produced by stripping it from natural gas molecules, emitting carbon monoxide in the process. Since nuclear power plants do not emit carbon or other air pollutants, hydrogen made by splitting water there will, it is hoped, lower the carbon footprint of industrial hydrogen customers.

“Today, a number of nuclear power plants could produce cost-competitive hydrogen — and, with additional electrolyzer (research and development) and more installations, many more nuclear plants could in the future,” said Mark Ruth, a group manager with National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Strategic Energy Analysis Center and lead author of a report analyzing the potential cost-competitiveness of producing hydrogen at nuclear plants.

Commercial hydrogen production via low-temperature electrolysis will be demonstrated by a previously awarded project launched in September 2019. Led by Energy Harbor’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Plant near Toledo, Ohio, the two-year project will demonstrate a low-temperature electrolysis unit to produce commercial quantities of hydrogen. The third utility taking part in the project, Arizona Public Service, which operates the Palo Verde Generating Station, is also evaluating the integration of nuclear energy with hydrogen production.

“Holistic integration of the energy system will involve contributions from electrical, thermal and chemical networks, as well as greater utilization of energy storage at various scales,” Boardman said. “That’s how the commercial nuclear power industry can provide reliable, sustainable, low-emission and affordable energy and energy products to its customers.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.