DOE maps plan to supercharge hydrogen, nuclear, storage

By David Iaconangelo | 03/22/2023 06:59 AM EDT

Three reports from the Department of Energy outlined barriers for emerging technologies along with potential solutions and timelines.

Energy storage, nuclear reactor site, hydrogen pipeline.

New reports from the Department of Energy examine energy storage, advanced nuclear and hydrogen technologies. Portland General Electric/Flickr (energy storage); Business Wire/AP Photo (nuclear); Petmal/iStock (hydrogen)

The Department of Energy has released road maps for industries and policymakers about how to bring three new clean technologies into the country’s energy mainstream — advanced nuclear, clean hydrogen and long-duration storage.

The short answer: sums that might exceed $200 billion by 2030.

Developed in part for private investors, the three reports lay out the chief barriers for the three technologies along with possible solutions and rough timelines for their emergence in the 2020s and beyond.


They are the first in a larger series dubbed the “Pathways to Commercial Liftoff” reports, which will focus on how a broad range of energy technologies can become “a largely self-sustaining market.” Additional reports will emerge in the coming months, according to the Energy Department.

Each of the three road maps published Tuesday was co-authored by three DOE branches — the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, Argonne National Laboratory and the Office of Technology Transitions. Several other offices within DOE, such as the Loan Programs Office and the Office of Policy, made contributions as well.

Massive, unprecedented investments, ranging from roughly $129 billion to over $260 billion, will be necessary by 2030 across the advanced nuclear, clean hydrogen and long-duration storage sectors, the DOE offices concluded. That is up from roughly $40 billion in public and private investments directed toward those sectors to date.

Long-duration storage would require at least $9 billion to $12 billion in investment before 2030, according to the road maps. Advanced nuclear would need between $35 billion and $40 billion, and hydrogen would require $85 billion to $215 billion.

But the three technologies are likely to take diverging paths.

Hydrogen made with the cheapest wind and solar in the country, DOE said, could become competitive with fossil fuels in roughly five years for ammonia production and heavy-duty trucks because of a production tax credit from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act. But a lack of specialized workers and solutions for transporting and storing the fuel could prevent the industry from scaling up.

Advanced nuclear could become a major contributor to net-zero goals in 2050, accounting for around 200 gigawatts of the firm power capacity necessary to meet the midcentury target, according to DOE. But the department said that within the next few years, at least one specific nuclear design needs to emerge as a clear leader by winning contracts to build anywhere from five to 10 reactors.

Long-duration storage would serve a similar role to nuclear in net-zero goals, contributing anywhere from 225 to 460 GW of capacity by midcentury, DOE concluded. Before that can happen, DOE said, the technology’s capital costs need to plunge by around half, power markets need to establish predictable compensation for long-duration’s grid benefits and supply chains need to arise — all by 2030.

In a statement, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the “Liftoff” reports would “help drive engagement between government and industry to unlock exciting new opportunities and ensure America is the global leader in the next generation of clean energy technologies.”

“As we combat the climate crisis and race towards an equitable clean energy future, public and private partnerships will be more important and critical than ever before,” she said.

Eyeing net zero

The road maps come on the heels of the latest warning about the pace of global warming from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Scientists on that panel said that within roughly a decade, the world is due to blow past the Paris climate accord’s most ambitious goal — limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — as long as greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate (Greenwire, March 20).

Many of the most influential U.S. energy companies, such as its biggest power and electric utilities, say complying with the Paris goals will require emerging technologies like hydrogen, advanced nuclear and long-duration storage.

The International Energy Agency has endorsed that idea as well in past years (Energywire, July 6, 2020). And the new DOE road maps said the Biden administration’s climate goals — carbon-free power by 2035 and net-zero emissions economywide by 2050 — will hinge partly on commercializing the three technologies.

“It is our aspiration that these ‘Liftoff’ reports play a pivotal role in our common national goal of deploying clean energy solutions at unprecedented speed and scale, and in a manner that benefit all of the American people,” said David Crane, director of DOE’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, during a Tuesday afternoon webinar.

The hydrogen road map, which served as the main focus of the DOE webinar, was meant partly to advance the technology “by demystifying it,” Crane added. “The difference between technologies considered immature versus those deemed mature often comes down to widespread availability of accurate unbiased information.”

Climate activists have sometimes disagreed with the notion that new technologies are necessary to address the climate crisis, arguing that the real barriers are political rather than technical.

And hydrogen, in particular, has gotten plenty of scrutiny from emissions researchers, pipeline safety watchdogs and others, who say the fuel might be dirtier than advertised, dangerous to transport by pipeline and a convenient tool for greenwashing — the practice of making something appear more environmentally friendly than it is (Energywire, Jan. 18).

Even hydrogen advocates have cast doubt on whether the federal government’s backing of clean hydrogen — defined as emitting 4 kilograms of CO2 or less for every 1 kilogram of hydrogen — will be sufficient to create a full-scale industry. That U.S. support includes billions of dollars in funds from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law for hydrogen hubs and a tax credit for the fuel’s production from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Many industries are likely to distrust whether low-carbon hydrogen will be cheap and consistently available in volumes that would allow it to displace fossil fuels, according to one recent report by the Energy Futures Initiative (Energywire, Feb. 9).

Crane described three primary challenges for hydrogen’s development during the Tuesday webinar. They include the safety and cost of transporting hydrogen, along with the indirect global warming effects of hydrogen that could leak from pipelines and the possible shortfalls in demand from clean hydrogen buyers, he said.

The three DOE road maps were accompanied by a separate, brief report recommending that project developers and investors engage early with local communities; incorporate energy justice tenets; create a career-track workforce; and support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

“I think the big take-home for all these reports is that we really are at an all-hands-on-deck time,” said Vanessa Chan, DOE’s chief commercialization officer, during Tuesday’s webinar.

Huge infusions of private investment would need to follow public funds for demonstrations of the emerging technologies, she added. “There’s not one, single agency that can get us to liftoff.”