Idaho National Laboratory aims towards net-zero operations

Posted at 4:00 PM, Aug 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-21 18:42:47-04

IDAHO FALLS — About a quarter of emissions in the United States comes from electricity production and a National Laboratory here in Idaho is working to change that.

From new nuclear investments to electric vehicles, scientists and engineers at Idaho National Laboratory are working to shift the electricity grid and they're starting now with a goal to reach site-wide Net-Zero by 2031.

Current U.S. Energy Portfolio

We use electricity every day, but where does it come from?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, of the 4 billion kilowatt hours of power generated last year in the United States, 61% came from fossil fuel sources like coal and natural gas, 20% came from renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and nuclear power accounted for 19%.

Energy consumption in the country doesn't line up to this distribution of generated electricity.

Just 12% of energy consumed comes from renewable energy, 8% comes from nuclear, and the rest - about 80% - comes from fossil fuel sources.

More information on energy generation and consumption can be found here and here.

In the future, this power distribution might look different.

National Context

Headlines were made last week when President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law - which included the first significant federal investment to fight climate change at the price tag of $375 billion.

This new budget contains line-items for a changing energy future. This includes funding for emission-reducing equipment at power plants, tax credits for nuclear power and carbon capture technology.

Technologies being developed right now in Idaho will likely contribute to this new national investment and this stems from a history of energy innovation at Idaho National Laboratory.

Idaho National Laboratory aims towards Net-Zero

Idaho has a unique energy past.

“Of course, we're here because of the history," President of Battelle Energy Alliance and Director of Idaho National Laboratory (INL) said.

In 1949, the first experimental breeder reactor, EBR-1, the first nuclear test reactor was operated near Arco. A legacy of energy innovation is carried into the present day by INL.

“We're an applied energy laboratory. So what that means is, is our brilliant people are focused on real problems for the nation, real problems to solve and that's, I think, what makes this place particularly special," Wagner said.

Now INL is working on the future of energy and leading by example.

"Our goal to get to Net-Zero here at INL is 2031. I know it's challenging, but it's doable," Jhansi Kandasamy, INL's Net-Zero Director said.

Newly hired-on Kandasamy has an extensive background in nuclear engineering and management. She was hired exclusively to get the INL team towards a cleaner operation and reduce climate impact.

‘Net-Zero’ means striking a balance between greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and greenhouse gases removed - an action that's easier said than done.

"So i think in 20 years, we will be the benchmark where we can show how all of these [green technologies] are being demonstrated and applied, and look at from using those technologies to see what the future could look like," Kandasamy explained.

While the laboratory works at turning operations net-zero in-house, the scientists and engineers on-site invent, test, and tweak the technologies needed to get there on a national scale. All in order to create a safer and more reliable energy future.

"It's a big opportunity to not only transition away from carbon but also to do so in a way that's lasting and secure," Wagner said, Oone thing is super clear. There's no debate around it, and that is that major corporations, states, countries around the world have determined that carbon is a problem and that they want to decarbonize.”

That transition looks like smaller electricity grids, maximizing energy storage and efficiency. This picture wouldn't be complete without new nuclear potential.

"How we fit into that, and particularly the nuclear side, is to make sure that we can broadly be building, deploying, if you will, new nuclear systems, particularly where you really need the energy intensity of nuclear, within by, say, early 2030s. And then if you're looking out 20 years to the early 2040s, that we've got a significant deployment of nuclear," Wagner said.

INL is set to build a new reactor, recently given the green light by the U.S. Dept. of Energy in July.

"So for perspective, we haven't started a new nuclear system on the site since the early 70s. Most of our staff members weren't even born," Wagner said.

Nuclear energy could be on the verge of a resurgence as policy makers look to turn away from reliance on fossil fuels.

Line items within the inflation reduction act may help the U.S. energy industry change course, but will the transition happen fast enough?

Heat records shattering around the globe and unprecedented natural disasters, are all on track to continue and worsen with climate change.

“Are we moving fast enough? The goal the world, global goal is 2050. Is that fast enough? You know, so we, we're doing what we can to help accelerate it. But there's a lot of things that we need to work through," Kandasamy said.

Related: Boise ties record for excess heat

In the coming days, Idaho News 6 will publish more reporting on what we learned about the specific technology development at Idaho National Laboratory which will contribute towards a changing energy future.