A three US laboratory skunk-works has modelled a hybrid energy network that weaves together renewables, nuclear and fossil-fired generation with carbon capture, which its engineers suggest could form the basis of a future system that has “resilience, reliability, affordability and security while increasing flexibility and sustainability”.

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The all-energy system developed by researchers from the Department of Energy’s three applied energy laboratories – Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NET) – and outlined a paper in the scientific journal Joule, frames the design as “expanding traditional strategies” around the use of different energy resources “while meeting social and environmental objectives”.

The tri-lab research group, which said they saw the project as a “grand national challenge”, found that compared in a “competitive assessment of single energy sources, hybrid energy systems offer distinct advantages” by being able to use “multiple feedstocks to create multiple products and services” and a more “dynamic and optimised supply and demand” chain.

“The design of integrated energy systems is a significant challenge—and opportunity,” said INL director Mark Peters. “The collaboration by the three applied national laboratories, and the setup and operation of real-world experiments at their testing facilities, represents a comprehensive and focused effort that is transparent and objective.

“This work will help realise future advanced energy systems that should help our nation expand affordable energy options and significantly contribute to wide-scale decarbonisation efforts.”

The researchers’ “multi-input, multi-output” system was based around a “tightly coupled industrial energy park” that advanced nuclear reactors, small-scale fossil generators, and renewable energy plants to produce electricity and hydrogen for use and onward transmission.

“In this scenario, depending on market pricing, electricity and or heat could be sold into the grid, used on-site, or stored for later distribution and use,” said NETL senior fellow David Miller. “Furthermore, the output streams could also be used to produce hydrogen or other valuable chemicals and products.”

The researchers belief the system modelled, though “hypothetical”, could be developed at a scale that would “provide an abundant supply of clean energy for a larger net-zero-emission energy system” in the US, and “support sectors of the economy that are more difficult to decarbonise, such as industry and transportation”.

“Considering complementary attributes among various energy technologies opens up new opportunities for asset use optimization that meet multiple energy services and maximise economic value,” said NREL executive director Douglas Arent, lead author on the research.

The early thinking on the hybrid energy system model began among the labs in 2018, when NETL, NREL, and INL hosted the first tri-lab workshop in response to call from then-deputy secretary of the DOE Mark Menezes, with workshops since focused on addressing the science and technology challenges behind the system design, including those around new and advanced materials and componentry.