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IEA urges policymakers to embrace both hydrogen and nuclear

Without policy changes, advanced economies could lose 25% of their nuclear generation capacity by 2025, resulting in billions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned. 

In a new report, Nuclear Power in a Clean Energy System, the agency outlines the risks associated with policymaker indecision on the future of nuclear energy. According to the study, ageing plants are beginning to close in advanced economies, partly because of concerns about safety, and partly because of economic and regulatory uncertainty.

While extending the operational life of existing nuclear plants requires substantial capital investment, the IEA says that its cost is competitive with other electricity generation technologies, including wind and solar. However, market conditions don’t favour these extensions, largely because a prolonged period of low wholesale electricity prices in many countries has cut profit margins.

Investing in new nuclear is even more challenging, according to the report. Planned projects in Finland, France and the US have faced significant budget overruns and construction delays. South Korea remains an exception, largely building and delivering plants on time, though its government has announced that it plans to stop building new nuclear.

If low-carbon technologies, namely wind and solar, are to make up the nuclear shortfall, the IEA says their deployment would have to accelerate to an ‘unprecedented’ pace. In the past two decades, wind and solar PV capacity has increased by some 580 GW in developed economies. But over the next 20 years, nearly five times that amount will need to be added to make up for a lack of new or life-extended nuclear.

The lack of further lifetime extensions of existing nuclear plants and new projects could ultimately result in an additional 4bn tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the IEA has also issued a report calling for the further development of a global hydrogen economy so that sectors such as long-haul transport, chemicals and steel can be decarbonised. However, the document: The Future of Hydrogen: Seizing Today’s Opportunities notes that hydrogen still faces significant challenges, among them the fact that producing the gas using low carbon energy is a costly process. The development of hydrogen infrastructure is also slow and holding back widespread adoption, as are prohibitive regulations in some regions.

The IEA’s study identified four actions that can be taken in the present day to lay the groundwork for the development of a global clean hydrogen industry. These include: 
  • making industrial ports the nerve centres for scaling up the use of clean hydrogen; 
  • building on existing infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines; 
  • expanding the use of hydrogen in transport by using it to power cars, trucks and buses that run on key routes; and 
  • launching the hydrogen trade’s first international shipping routes.

Reducing the emissions associated with hydrogen production is another challenge that must be overcome if hydrogen is to be rolled out worldwide. One approach, the IEA says, is to capture and store or utilise the CO2 from hydrogen production from fossil fuels. Another approach is for industries to secure greater supplies of hydrogen that has been produced using clean electricity.

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