As the United States moves toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the nation will need a broad mix of clean energy projects to carry the load.
To build these projects, developers must overcome any number of challenges including financing, siting and environmental regulations.
Now, the Department of Energy (DOE) is helping developers eliminate some of the obstacles by exploring the potential to develop clean energy projects on federal lands.
On Oct. 25, DOE and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) hosted industry, government, community and tribal leaders for the Cleanup to Clean Energy Information Day. DOE is considering leasing land on the 890-square-mile INL site directly north of Atomic City, Idaho, and east of Arco, Idaho.
INL’s Cleanup to Clean Energy Information Day was organized to help stakeholders learn more about the program and visit the sites under consideration. The event came after DOE issued a request for information on Oct. 17 to identify industry collaborators interested in developing commercial carbon-free electricity projects.
Dr. Kathryn Huff, DOE assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy; Lance Lacroix, manager of DOE’s Idaho Operations Office; John Wagner, INL director; Samuel Walsh, DOE general council; and Jason Barnes, business attraction specialist from the Idaho Department of Commerce, all spoke about DOE’s initiative and the benefits of doing business in Idaho. Dr. Charles Oppenheimer, grandson of famed physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and founding member of the Oppenheimer Project, spoke to nuclear energy’s place in safe and clean energy generation.
“There are lots of benefits in working with us,” said Huff. “I think the Cleanup to Clean Energy initiative really has the potential to help commercialize not just nuclear technologies but the integration between nuclear technologies and the incredible buildout of renewables and hydrogen production and a variety of other activities.”
The Atomic Energy Act (AEA), which serves as the authority for the Cleanup to Clean Energy leases, provides big benefits for potential partners, Huff said. Because the AEA does not include a specific limitation to the length of a lease, we are exploring longer-term lease opportunities. DOE’s ability to lease the land at below market value is an in-kind benefit. DOE can also help nuclear reactor developers navigate the nuclear regulatory licensing process.
The site itself also brings some strategic value to the table, Huff said. “It’s a fairly unencumbered space,” she said. “That has always been one of the benefits of Idaho for R&D activities.”
The development of 52 reactors and numerous other infrastructure projects during the site’s 75-year history have spawned decades of analysis and environmental reviews. “Certain areas of the land are extremely well characterized,” Huff said.
The site also has many capabilities already in place including three fire stations, nuclear research reactors, and separation technologies and fuel processing facilities, not to mention the extensive expertise of INL’s researchers.
Projects underway at the site include the Microreactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation (MARVEL) project — a 100 kilowatt microreactor prototype that marks the first new reactor project to be built at INL in 50 years. MARVEL is one of a dozen advanced reactor demonstrations or commercial projects that INL is collaborating on between now and 2030.
Another project is the Energy Technology Proving Ground, a facility future clean energy hub capable of supporting megawatt-scale high-temperature electrolysis hydrogen production projects.
INL’s vision is to “have solar, wind, geothermal, small nuclear systems, hydrogen production and carbon capture all securely operating with a microgrid,” Wagner said.
The proving ground would “provide a plug-and-play kind of environment for private sector developers to come in and test different, new ideas and technologies,”
“Many of these projects and capabilities could potentially be leveraged by clean energy developers leasing INL land,” Wagner said.
The event convened leaders in nuclear energy and other clean energy technologies, along with key utilities in the region.
Leasing federal land at the INL site is an exciting prospect, said industry officials who attended the event.
“INL is being very open ended about the types and scales of projects they are willing to consider,” said Joseph Huff, a representative of Honeywell, a multinational conglomerate that works in the energy industry, among many other business sectors. “It’s a positive way to approach these things.”
Yasir Arafat, chief technology officer at Aalo Atomics, said his company hopes to develop and commercialize a 10-megawatt-electric microreactor, named Aalo-1, drawing inspiration from DOE’s MARVEL test reactor.
“While our reactor boasts a distinctive engineering blueprint, it fundamentally incorporates analogous fuel, coolant and structural materials as MARVEL, establishing a comparable safety benchmark,” said Arafat. “Consequently, a significant portion of the nuclear information required by regulators for the licensing of our inaugural Aalo-1 reactor can be extrapolated from the operational data of MARVEL.”
“We are also orchestrating a holistic regulatory strategy in collaboration with the DOE and the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission), meticulously designed to secure the requisite licensing for our design,” he said.
Aalo’s proposed demonstration reactor at the INL facility would serve a dual purpose. The first phase focuses on authenticating the underlying nuclear physics. The second phase would demonstrate some of the reactor’s potential applications.
One application for the Aalo-1 could involve powering a megawatt-scale steam electrolysis system, producing clean hydrogen that could serve as fuel for INL’s motorcoaches, Arafat said. The reactor could also provide electricity for the lab’s electric vehicles.
“INL is working to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2031, and leasing land to clean energy developers could help meet that goal,” Wagner said. “More than 50% of our emissions are associated with electricity usage on our site,” he said. “I’m hopeful — I’m anxious, if you will — to see developers work with Idaho Power to increase the amount of carbon-free power they have available and that we could then purchase.”
DOE could begin issuing leases to clean energy developers within a year, Huff said. “I want to hear all of your ideas,” she said. “I think everyone here is interested in having our eyes opened to what could be possible.”
The request for information and Cleanup to Clean Energy Information Day event answer the Biden Administration’s call to identify and prioritize opportunities for on-site clean electricity projects from the private sector that generate, store and export clean electricity.
DOE announced the Cleanup to Clean Energy kickoff in July. DOE has identified land that is potentially suitable for leasing, including at the Hanford site in Washington in Washington, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the Savannah River site in South Carolina, the Nevada National Security site and the Idaho National Laboratory site. The event at INL followed Hanford’s information day on Sept. 22.
DOE and INL already have agreements to lease land for Oklo Inc.’s 1.5-megawatt Aurora microreactor.
Interested parties may submit responses to INL’s Cleanup to Clean Energy request for information through Dec. 15.