How nuclear energy can help the UK reach its net zero goals

This article was originally written in Energy Spectrum on 21 March 2021. To find out more about a subscription to Energy Spectrum, please contact Nick on n.palmer@cornwall-insight.com.

There are several challenges to reaching net zero, where its proponents believe nuclear could add value. Some of tomorrow’s main issues concern: How to provide low carbon heat to our homes and industry? How to produce low carbon drop-in replacement fuels? And how to not only stop emitting but also start subtracting CO2 out of our atmosphere?

In this blog, we discuss some of the arguments where nuclear helps address these challenges. For a background in nuclear energy and its value in helping the UK reach its net zero targets, please see our last blog on nuclear energy here.

Hydrogen

The importance of hydrogen in our energy system is projected to increase dramatically by 2050 (Figure 1). The vast majority of hydrogen is currently produced using fossil fuels (brown hydrogen). In the future, this will need to shift towards more climate-friendly production pathways, perhaps through renewables, nuclear electricity or by the addition of highly effective carbon capture. In February 2021, the Nuclear Industry Council (NIC) agreed on a Hydrogen Roadmap that argued that nuclear power could produce a third of the UK’s green hydrogen by 2050.

Figure 1: demand for hydrogen in 2050

Emerging technologies such as High-Temperature Steam Electrolysis (HTSE), which enables higher efficiency hydrogen production, could potentially dominate the nuclear hydrogen market by unlocking the comparative advantage of the low carbon heat available at a nuclear plant.

Low carbon process heat

Industrial heat makes up two-thirds of industrial energy demand in the world. Currently, nearly all process heat is delivered from carbon-intensive fuels. The difficulty with decarbonising this sector is finding a suitable source of high-temperature heat necessary for various industries such as refining, chemicals/ammonia, paper, glass, ceramics and more.

New smaller advanced reactors could deliver high temperature/high-pressure steam where it is needed. The siting requirements of the AMRs are likely to be substantially different from those of the GW-scale reactors, mainly due to the inherent safety features of AMRs. This opens the opportunity to provide cost-effective process steam where it is needed and remove the disadvantage of costly long-distance heat transport.

Direct Air Capture of CO2

Climate action is at the forefront of the transition in all sectors of the economy. Whilst tremendous effort is being exerted, some industries are particularly hard to decarbonise (e.g., aviation, agriculture). This means that we will likely need the power system to ‘produce’ negative emissions to make up for the industries that will not decarbonise in time to reach the 2050 net zero target. The government is currently considering mechanisms to incentivise negative emission technologies. Potentially, a price could be paid per every ton of CO2 permanently removed.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is an energy-intensive process, so it is crucial that low carbon energy sources power it. DAC plants could be co-located near GW-scale and smaller nuclear plants to take advantage of the abundant low carbon heat and electricity. While electricity demand could be satisfied by other generation technologies, large quantities of low carbon heat are harder to acquire.

Flexibility

Generators on the UK electricity system will need to become more flexible as the share of variable renewable generation increases. New nuclear plants could become much more flexible when coupled with thermal storage.

Nuclear is considered relatively inflexible and is typically operated as baseload to avoid thermal cycling of the plant and loss of revenue when operating at a decreased load. These issues could be avoided by regulating the nuclear plant’s electricity generation by installing a thermal store and oversizing the turbogenerator compared to the nuclear heat source. The thermal store then enables the nuclear reactor to operate at full power continuously, while the power generation to the grid can vary flexibly. Heat from the store could also be used for multiple applications, like district heating or process heating.

Synthetic fuels

Last but not least, synthetic fuels! Our economy is and will be, for a period of time, dependent on hydrocarbon fuels. Currently, used fossil fuels need to be replaced with clean alternatives, like synthetic fuels. That can be done via advanced processing of products from the above processes, such as hydrogen and CO2.

The traditional GW-scale baseload electricity-only nuclear plant model has done a good job supplying low carbon power to power systems worldwide for many decades. Future-proof nuclear power will need to expand upon its inherent advantages as a low carbon heat source by evolving the product portfolio beyond electricity; and designing for an increasingly flexible operation to integrate with an increasingly renewable grid.

All this, of course, is highly dependent on market conditions and future political and regulatory approaches to advanced nuclear and non-electric applications of nuclear power.

Malwina is part of our Consultancy team who works with highly reputable companies on a range of energy-focused projects. To see more about how the team helped businesses in 2020, view our infographic here. To discuss with the consultancy team how we can help with your energy project needs, please contact enquiries@cornwall-insight.com.

Related thinking

Announcement

Energy market and net zero transition learning and development: Role-relevant career development training

We’re well over halfway through the calendar year and are now beginning to see more of the government’s thinking and policy-shaping around what needs to change to meet the 2050 net zero target. For example, the flurry of documents issued towards the end of 2020, including the Energy White Paper...

Net zero corporates and ESG

Data critical for sustainable investments

On 24 June, attendees to our 'Financing net zero forum' tuned in to hear the expert panel discussions on the role of data in sustainable investment. Joining the meeting chairs, Cornwall Insight's Daniel Atzori and Emma Bill were our guest panellists from Mercatus and Victory Hill Capital Group LLP. For investors to make...

Commercial and market outlook

Evaluating the benefits of local coordination mechanisms in power supply

In March, Cornwall Insight launched its new Energy Spectrum Europe publication in collaboration with the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne (EWI). Below is an extract of our Energy Perspective article from our latest issue, written by Konstantin Gruber and Nils Namockel from EWI. Local forms of coordination are...

Heat networks

Reallocating electricity policy costs to incentivise low carbon heating technologies

Funding the cost of decarbonising the power system has mainly been through the consumers' electricity bills. In fact, in 2020-21 these costs amounted to a whopping £10bn. But is this method of raising revenue for decarbonisation still fit for purpose when faced with the need to decarbonise the nation's heat?...

Net zero corporates and ESG

Financing net zero panel advises policymakers for a long-term view of net zero to boost merchant renewable confidence

Last Thursday's 'Financing net zero forum' brought together 580 registered attendees across the renewables sector to listen to the expert panel discuss managing renewable merchant risk. Joining the chair of the meeting were experts from across the industry, with Shoosmiths sponsoring the afternoon discussions. Merchant renewables – the development of...

Net zero corporates and ESG

Get ready for climate risk reporting?

On 30 April we released the latest copy of our Energy net zero. The publication takes an in-depth look at the UK's transition to a low carbon economy. The below is an extract from our Energy Perspective on Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). The article was originally published in the...

Commercial and market outlook

Data centres predicted to become prosumers of electricity

In combination with Cornwall Insight and Bit Power, Host in Ireland published its Biannual report of Ireland’s Data Hosting Industry. The report highlights the importance of sustainability in Ireland’s digital transformation. The report confirmed the number of operational data centres in Ireland increased by 25 per cent over the past...

Power and gas networks

Green hydrogen is “essential” for the UK to achieve net zero

Today, we released the latest copy of our Energy net zero. The publication takes an in-depth look at the UK's transition to a low carbon economy. The below article analyses the UK landscape for hydrogen and how it is "essential" to achieve its climate goals. The article was originally published in the...

This site is registered on wpml.org as a development site.