German energy transition: benefits of hydrogen production in nuclear power plants

_ Yuri Kofner, junior economist, MIWI Institute for Market Integration and Economic Policy. Munich, 8 May 2021.

After the reactor incident in Fukushima caused by a tsunami, the German government decided in 2011 to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. So far, this phase-out is a central element of the country’s energy transition, although a power supply gap of 46 terawatt hours is forecast for 2023.[1]

According to the current legislation, the still operating nuclear power plants will be prohibited from selling electricity after 2022. The production of hydrogen at German nuclear power plants may be a way of keeping the power plants running for some potential point in the future if the federal government decides the return to nuclear power. At the same time, producing yellow / red hydrogen can help alleviate the emerging energy storage problem.

In the summer of 2020, the federal government of Germany affirmed that, as part of its climate and energy policy, it cannot entirely rule out the import of hydrogen, which was generated by using nuclear power.[2]

Nuclear energy – a safe and efficient basis for climate policy

In autumn 2020, the European Commission announced that hydrogen, which is generated using energy from nuclear power plants, should be recognized as “low-carbon” and could thus become an aspect of the European Green New Deal.[3]

Also, in the hydrogen strategies at the federal and EU level, the possibility of producing hydrogen with the help of nuclear energy is neither defined nor excluded.[4]

In contrast to Germany, in many industrialized countries safe nuclear energy is seen as a pillar of their climate mitigation agenda. In 2020, several EU countries, such as the Netherlands[5], Sweden[6] and Poland[7], decided to return to or expand nuclear power in their energy mix. France is clearly committed to preserving nuclear energy, which made up 70.6 percent of the French electricity mix in 2019.[8] The new US President Joe Biden calls nuclear energy an important part of the US “Green New Deal” and the national energy policy.[9]

Of all methods of electricity generation, the number of fatalities per TWh of electrical power produced is the smallest with nuclear energy.[10] In addition, generation IV reactors are considered to be the safest in the world. They are already being used effectively in China[11] and Russia. With reactors of the IV generation and dual-fluid reactors, the supposed problem of the final disposal can also be avoided through technological advances in the recycling of used nuclear rods.[12]

Yellow and red hydrogen

Currently hydrogen is named the main solution for the electricity storage problem caused by the German energy transition. However, hydrogen is not an energy resource, but an energy carrier. It is versatile in terms of energy and material and can be relatively easily stored in the existing gas network. “Red” and “yellow” hydrogen, i.e., which is produced by nuclear power using electrolysis or pyrolysis, is not only low in carbon emissions, but much cheaper than “green” hydrogen.[13]

Many advanced economies recognize the advantage of CO2-neutral hydrogen production with the help of nuclear power. In its national hydrogen strategy, the French government announced that it would use nuclear power plants as an energy source for electrolysis.[14] Energy companies in Great Britain are also planning to build huge hydrogen production facilities at British nuclear power plants.[15]

In the United States, the government launched the “Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative” back in 2003, which describes in detail how nuclear power plants could become “hybrid energy systems” by producing hydrogen as a second source of income. The US government is currently funding the research, development and market readiness of the production of CO2-neutral hydrogen with the help of nuclear power with investments of almost 30 billion USD.[16]

Compared to transport / import over longer distances, local hydrogen production in proximity to the consumer is also better, as this reduces energy loss by compression, liquefaction, or friction in the pipelines, and thus the overall costs can be reduced.[17] Due to economies of scale of the relatively high nominal output (approx. 1,400 megawatts in 2018)[18] and the continuous running of nuclear power plants, hydrogen production costs can be reduced even further.

When producing hydrogen, its “colour” should not be important, but rather its “well-to-wheel” CO2 footprint, i.e., from the beginning of the production process to final consumption. The life cycle CO2 equivalent of one kilowatt hour from nuclear energy corresponds to that from wind energy and is 3.5 times less than that of photovoltaics.[19]

Policy recommendations

The German federal government should create a regulatory framework that enables the potential production of CO2-neutral hydrogen at German nuclear power plants even after 2022.

The production of CO2-neutral hydrogen with the help of nuclear energy has to be put on an equal footing with the production of hydrogen by other CO2-neutral production methods in terms of tax law and regulatory policy (most favoured regime).

The federal government should advocate any changes that may be necessary in legislation at state, federal and EU level, including: Atomic Energy Act (AtG), Renewable Energy Act (EEG), Energy Industry Act (EnWG), Combined Heat and Power Act (KWKG), etc.

The federal government should advocate potentially necessary changes in the hydrogen strategies at the state, federal and EU level.

The items foreseen in the coming budgets for the promotion of research, development and the market ramp-up of hydrogen technologies are to be extended to the production of CO2-neutral hydrogen using nuclear energy.

Finally, the federal government should initiate a dialogue with all interested stakeholders about the challenges and possibilities as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the potential production of CO2-neutral hydrogen at the German nuclear power plants.

Notes

[1] EuPD Research (2020). Energy Transition in the context of nuclear and fossil-fuel phase-out. Electricity market perspectives until 2040. URL: https://www.thesmartere.de/media/doc/5fd2419b4eb76a1610040472

[2] Deutscher Bundestag (2020). Drucksache 19/20916. URL: https://dipbt.bundestag.de/doc/btd/19/209/1920916.pdf

[3] Euraktiv (2020). EU-Kommission: Aus Atomkraft produzierter Wasserstoff ist „CO2-arm“. URL: https://www.euractiv.de/section/energie-und-umwelt/news/eu-kommission-aus-atomkraft-produzierterwasserstoff-ist-co2-arm/

[4] Siehe: BMWI (2020). Die Nationale Wasserstoffstrategie. URL: https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/DE/Publikationen/Energie/die-nationale-wasserstoffstrategie.html ; European Commission (2020). EU Hydrogen Strategy. URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/FS_20_1296

[5] Welt (2020). Niederlande planen neue AKWs – und setzen Deutschland unter Druck. URL: https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/plus216513100/Energie-Niederlande-planen-Rueckkehr-zur-AtomkraftDeutschland-unter-Druck.html

[6] Telepolis (2020). Schweden: Klimakrise soll Kernkraft retten. URL: https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Schweden-Klimakrise-soll-Kernkraft-retten-4645610.htm

[7] Euronews (2020). Polen neues Energiestrategie setzt auch auf AKWs. URL: https://de.euronews.com/2020/10/21/polen-neues-energiestrategie-setzt-auch-auf-akws

[8] IAEA (2021). Country profiles. France. URL: https://cnpp.iaea.org/countryprofiles/France/France.htm

[9] Official web page of Joe Biden (2020). The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental

Justice. URL: https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/

[10] Lüdecke H.-J. (2019). Kommt wieder Leben in die deutsche Kernenergie? Europäisches Institut für Klima und Energie. URL: https://www.eike-klima-energie.eu/2019/10/11/kommt-wieder-leben-in-die-deutsche-kernenergie/

[11] WNN (2018). HTR-PM steam generator passes pressure tests. URL: https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/HTR-PM-steam-generator-passes-pressure-tests

[12] Nuklearia (2016). Strom aus Atommüll: Schneller Reaktor BN-800 im kommerziellen Leistungsbetrieb. URL: https://nuklearia.de/2016/12/09/strom-aus-atommuell-schneller-reaktor-bn-800-im-kommerziellen-leistungsbetrieb/

[13] Hennig F. (2021). German energy transition: tackling the energy storage problem. MIWI Institute. URL: https://miwi-institut.de/archives/1046

[14] Ministère de l’Économie et des Finances de la République Française (2020). Stratégie nationale pour le développement de l’hydrogène décarboné en France. URL: https://www.ecologie.gouv.fr/sites/default/files/DP%20-%20Strat%C3%A9gie%20nationale%20pour%20le%20d%C3%A9veloppement%20de%20l%27hydrog%C3%A8ne%20d%C3%A9carbon%C3%A9%20en%20France.pdf

[15] Recharge (2020). EDF plans vast hydrogen production at UK nuclear plants. URL: https://www.rechargenews.com/transition/edf-plans-vast-hydrogen-production-at-uk-nuclear-plants/2-1-763048

[16] FCHEA (2020). Using Nuclear Power to Produce Green Hydrogen. URL: http://www.fchea.org/in-transition/2020/5/11/using-nuclear-power-to-produce-green-hydrogen

[17] Kumpich H-D. (2020). Wasserstoff und Kernenergie sollen Windkraft retten. URL: (https://www.achgut.com/artikel/wasserstoff_und_kernenergie_sollen_windkraft_retten

[18] NDR (2018). Watt? Das leisten Kraftwerke im Vergleich URL: https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/info/WattDas-leisten-die-Anlagen-im-Vergleich,watt250.html#:~:text=Ein%20mittleres%20Atomkraftwerk%20wie%20das,f%C3%BCr%203%2C5%20Millionen%20Haushalte

[19] IPCC Working Group III (2014). Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change.

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