Just how flexible is an energy source?

It’s a question that many of us don’t think too much about. But as the growth of variable generators, like wind and solar, continue to gain traction around the world, it’s an important question to ask.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that renewables will supply nearly half of the world’s electricity by 2050. As higher penetrations of renewables (primarily wind and solar) are connected to the grid, traditional base load energy sources, like nuclear energy, will need to operate more flexibly to produce heat and electricity as needed.

A new international report, released by the Clean Energy Ministerial’s NICE Future initiative, highlights this topic of flexibility and thoroughly examines the potential roles nuclear reactors can play in developing increasingly integrated clean energy systems.

The Flexible Nuclear Energy for Clean Energy Systems report, championed by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan, includes experts from several ministries, government agencies, and industry organizations from around the world.

A variety of analytical tools, systems analyses, and optimization studies used in the report were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and conducted in collaboration with industry partners.

The main takeaway is very clear. Nuclear is more flexible than many of us thought and its FULL potential can be realized by teaming up with renewables to create new hybrid energy systems that could ultimately lead to new jobs, thriving economies and lower emissions.   

The Flexibility of Nuclear

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Watch and learn about the flexibility of current and future reactors.
Video courtesy of the Department of Energy

DOE defines flexibility as the ability of an energy source to economically provide services when and where they are needed by the end user. These services are more than just electricity generation. Nuclear’s thermal energy can be used directly to heat households, drive industrial processes, produce hydrogen for transportation and storage, and even purify water.

By operating alongside chemical plants and renewables, current and future nuclear systems can be leveraged to generate alternative revenue streams and help lower emissions across the energy, transportation and industrial sectors.

Nuclear enables flexibility in three keys ways:

Operations – Current and future nuclear systems can support renewable generation by ramping their power output up or down to match grid demand. Some reactors in the United States and Canada flexibly operate each spring to accommodate additional hydropower on the grid. New technologies under development, such as small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors, will offer even greater flexibility in the near future to ramp power or produce other products simultaneously. 

Both advanced reactors sizes are expected to be commercially available within the decade.

Products – Nuclear systems can use their thermal energy to produce consumer products, either directly or through an intermediate energy carrier. One option is to produce hydrogen that can be used to store energy on the grid or as a feedstock to produce a variety of products, ranging from fertilizers and plastics to new synthetic fuels.

DOE has awarded two hydrogen demonstration projects at operating reactors that could open up new regional markets for the industry.

Advanced reactors are expected to operate at even higher temperatures and can be specifically designed to work with renewables in powering chemical or water desalination plants on-site.

Size – The development of SMRs and microreactors is expected to dramatically increase the flexibility of bringing new reactors to areas never thought possible. These smaller, more compact designs will have reduced emergency planning zones that will allow them to be sited virtually anywhere in the world—whether that be in the heart of an urban city or on a remote desert island.

Looking to a NICE Future

The Nuclear Innovation: Clean Energy Future (NICE Future) initiative of the Clean Energy Ministerial works with governments, research institutions, nongovernment organizations and industry to build partnerships, pool information, inform the design process, and ultimately explore the potential for expanding integrated systems that meet a wide range of clean energy needs.

You can learn more about its Flexible Nuclear Campaign and how coordinated use of these technologies can reliably and affordably accelerate contributions to clean energy systems of the future.

The Office of International Nuclear Energy Policy and Cooperation, within the Office of Nuclear Energy, collaborates with international partners, bilaterally and multilaterally, to support the safe, secure, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. 

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Aleshia Duncan
Aleshia Duncan serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Nuclear Energy Policy and Cooperation in the Office of Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
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