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A FORCE to be reckoned with: Computer modeling for optimal energy partnerships

August 21, 2023

By Addison Arave

Imagine modern computing as the conductor of an orchestra. Just as a conductor brings harmony to a complex musical arrangement, modern computing is crucial to harmonizing the intricate mix of energy producers and users, optimizing the use of precious resources for the greater good.

One strategy for establishing that harmony would pair the nuclear energy industry with other utilities and industries to form integrated energy systems (IES). Such integration could slash energy waste by coupling energy generators and users.

These partnership opportunities require in-depth analyses that often take months, if not years, to complete. Idaho National Laboratory has developed a resource for potential IES partners and stakeholders: the Framework for Optimization of Resources and Economics, or FORCE. This software provides a thorough analysis of IES solutions to inform prospective collaborations.

“With recent increased focus on net-zero goals and increased use of wind and solar power, now is the time to move away from ballpark estimations in favor of thorough analysis of the technical and economic benefits an IES can bring to existing and future nuclear plants,” said INL research scientist Paul Talbot.

Enabling informed integration

Integrating nuclear power into broader energy systems, including renewable energy sources and heat-intensive industries, could improve flexibility and unlock revenue streams for nuclear power producers. In the long term, these systems could help provide energy independence, grid resilience, economic competitiveness, job creation and smarter use of resources.

For example, the heat generated by nuclear reactors can be used to produce electricity, but this heat can also fuel high-temperature industrial processes such as those that produce hydrogen, chemicals, ammonia or synthetic diesel and jet fuels. Engineers at INL and elsewhere are figuring out how to deliver both heat and electricity from nuclear reactors to those industrial users.

The FORCE software can help identify profitable IES configurations by defining the technical feasibility and economic value of a given market partnership. From there, it constructs a model to present risk-informed, long-term value opportunities to optimize the system’s performance. In short, FORCE helps lower the barrier of entry to this kind of intricate analysis.

Keeping money in mind

FORCE can evaluate integrated systems in the planning stages, in real time and into the future, using a series of computer models. These analysis pathways include long-term economic optimization, real-time optimization and transient process modeling to show how systems change over time.

The FORCE framework provides several analysis pathways designed to determine the technical and economic viability of numerous integrated energy systems configurations.

Long-term economic optimization is made possible by a model called Holistic Energy Resource Optimization Network, or HERON. Whereas FORCE models how factors like weather, commodity prices and product demand impact different configurations of integrated energy systems, HERON considers the monetary aspect of those factors. It analyzes integrated systems to determine how specific details and components should be arranged for an ideal financial outcome. This information can help nuclear power plant and chemical process owners decide whether to proceed with nuclear integration.

For instance, many advanced reactor designers are considering the financial benefit of storing thermal energy from the reactor. If the grid doesn’t need all of a nuclear plant’s electricity, the plant can store the heat it generates rather than using it to make electricity. This function is especially important as more renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are added to electricity grids, driving a need for flexibility to ramp electricity generation up or down.

Such scenarios illustrate the potential profitability of different types of thermal energy storage systems. But analyzing those systems becomes more complex when reactor heat can be used for other purposes such as water desalinization or making commodities like hydrogen. The variable factors in this kind of partnership make it complicated to give a profit estimate to interested companies. HERON enables this kind of uncertain, long-term, multi-commodity and time-dependent system analysis, giving peace of mind to participants.

Making each moment count

The second analysis pathway is real-time optimization, which aids minute-by-minute decision making within the energy system. It considers the technical aspects of each element and adjusts the control system to meet target metrics, such as maximizing responsiveness or profitability. Since traditional nuclear power operation does not have this kind of flexibility, digital twins and artificial intelligence models can further inform the ideal control design and IES operation.

To this end, the Optimization of Real-time Capacity Allocation, or ORCA, tool is being developed within FORCE to simplify real-time control communication and optimization using digital twins. ORCA’s goal is to tackle the challenges surrounding efficient distribution of energy, sharing information between physical and virtual assets, and managing data for complicated systems.

Let’s say a nuclear power plant uses its steam output to create hydrogen. It has the option to fully dedicate that steam to electricity production or split off just a portion of that steam to hydrogen production. While some predictive day-ahead decisions can be made, the ability to have real-time control of that steam offtake increases the opportunities available to nuclear power plant and integrated system operators.

Piecing the puzzle together

The third analysis pathway facilitates transient process modeling: analysis over time. HYBRID is a model repository that connects all elements of every component within the integrated energy system to show how they work together either in a steady-state or moment by moment. This type of breakdown provides a clearer picture than the long-term technoeconomic analysis in HERON and allows researchers and prospective partners to study the technical feasibility of an integrated energy system.

After HERON optimizes the IES portfolio, resulting example reports of the system can be loaded into HYBRID to see in more detail how the system responds to changes in operation. For example, if a nuclear power plant/hydrogen system is frequently ramped between electricity and hydrogen production, that system can be loaded into HYBRID to check steam quality and pressures, hydrogen pressure, temperatures and other factors throughout operation.

Getting bigger and better

Some of these FORCE tools are already assisting cooperative research and development projects between INL and industry partners. Plus, commercialization of the tools is in the works through Small Business Innovation Research collaborations. Each new use brings a unique set of scenarios and challenges that improve the FORCE software. These validation and verification activities refine the system and ensure accurate performance.

FORCE developers host workshops to teach new energy systems modeling professionals the software and how to operate it.

In a step toward making these tools accessible and easy to use, HERON is integrating with the Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation Workbench, which provides a unified user interface for integrated code modeling activities. This integration will allow HERON to deploy directly with INL’s high performance computing OnDemand interface, which lets users access resources in the high-performance computing enclave from their web browsers with minimal installation needed. This means that utilities, advanced reactor designers and university and laboratory researchers can spend more time finding novel opportunities for nuclear energy as part of integrated systems and less time building complex models for specific scenarios.

“Novel energy system designs and deployment options that combine multiple clean energy sources will be essential as communities around the world seek energy transitions to enable a decarbonized future,” said Integrated Energy & Storage Systems Division Director Shannon Bragg-Sitton. “The FORCE tool suite provides unique capability to evaluate and optimize the technical and economic performance of these diverse energy systems. This ensures that we use the best clean energy strategies available to meet growing energy demands under a range of steady state and dynamic conditions.”

Read more about the FORCE tool suite here.

About Idaho National Laboratory

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, celebrating 75 years of scientific innovations in 2024. The laboratory performs research in each of DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. 

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Posted August 21, 2023

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