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The world is far off track when it comes to meeting the Paris Agreement goals of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5˚C by 2050. Current projections, even those that include vast expansion of renewables generation, show that fossil fuels will still make up the majority of world energy use by the middle of the century. This puts us on course for a high-risk 4˚C outcome, which could mean substantial areas of the planet becoming uninhabitable. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to meet that limit of 1.5 ˚C, human-generated CO2 emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. To stop the worst scenarios from materializing, we need to decarbonize electricity and heat production. To help do that, we must address the future of coal. At Bryden Wood, we are working with Terra Praxis, a nonprofit organization focused on action for climate and prosperity, on a major initiative: Repurposing Coal.
More than 2,000 Gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity is operating in the world today, adding roughly 15 billion tons of CO₂ emissions per year. This amounts to almost half of all carbon emissions.
Mainstream climate thinking that assumes countries will shut down their coal plants is not realistic. Most coal plants are young: more than half are less than 14 years old. Existing coal-fired power plants have enormous value in terms of established markets for their power, grid connections, access to cooling water and experienced personnel necessary for the generation and distribution of power.
But even though coal plants themselves are the largest single source of carbon, they can also act as flexible generators, complementing renewables in support of delivering reliable, affordable and resilient electricity grids.
Installing advanced heat sources, such as small modular reactors (SMRs), to replace the coal-fired boilers at existing coal plants will enable the continued use of existing infrastructure for emissions-free electricity generation.
Repurposing coal offers a fast, low-risk, large-scale contribution to decarbonizing the world’s power generation as we move into the future.
Together with Terra Praxis, other specialists and key stakeholders, we are developing a solution that will contribute to creating a huge market for rapid, low-cost repurposing of coal and gas plants with carbon-free advanced heat sources, while delivering a substantial portion of the clean electricity required to help achieve net-zero by 2050.
If we use traditional approaches to design, procure and build nuclear plants at the scale we need to get the required level of carbon emission reductions, we simply will fail:
What we need is a fundamental rethink with regards to the future of coal and how nuclear facilities are conceived, designed, procured and delivered. Instead of approaching this task as thousands of individual refurbishments, we need to have a unified approach where the design is simplified and standardized in such a way that a much wider range of designers, manufacturers and contractors can participate, and the design knowledge is embedded in building systems and design tools so that everyone involved can benefit from the learning on all the other projects.
To achieve this, we are working with Terra Praxis and their wider team, including specialists from MIT, University at Buffalo, Microsoft and KPMG, to:
Terra Praxis is creating a business model that uses technology to connect people, organizations, and resources in an interactive ecosystem in which value can be created and exchanged. To realize this ecosystem, Bryden Wood is involved in developing a technological infrastructure that provides tools and services that make it easy for customers and suppliers to interact to realize the required refurbishments.
To make that possible, Bryden Wood also needs to create an engineering platform solution: a building system that can deliver the required variety of solutions for differing requirements in different situations, but that is rationalized, standardized and optimized appropriately to enable the required simplification of all processes that make it possible for the supply chain to collaboratively deliver this built solution.
Existing coal plants vary widely. There are very different site layouts and different levels of site conditions. The seismic conditions in particular are very important, as they have a major impact on the design of the safety systems and therefore increase the complexity of the design. Existing power stations also vary in capacity, and the various nuclear reactor technologies are also different from each other.
The strategy for achieving the required level of standardization is to isolate variability. Six standardized seismic isolation solutions can deal with most of the seismic conditions we will encounter. A standardized, customizable heat transfer system allows the new nuclear systems to plug in to the existing coal plant infrastructure. A standardized cross-section design encloses the various types of reactor technologies while being able to expand to deal with various sizes of capacity that are required. The non-safety related systems for different reactors have strong similarities and can be standardized across different reactor technologies.
A key driver for cost and duration of projects is the complexity of design, construction, and approval process for safety related systems. Traditionally, custom-designed nuclear grade facilities enclose a mixture of safety-critical, safety-supporting and other systems. Our approach is to separate out these systems and then standardize and optimize them as much as possible.
A standardized, mass-customisable design solution will make it possible to use algorithmic design for key design tasks:
The review and approval process is simplified dramatically. Safety related and non-safety related systems are separated and simplified. The amount of information to be reviewed is significantly reduced. Standardized solutions mean that detail is available early and can be pre-approved. The variation of the design and interfaces are standardized and controlled: only the differences need to be reviewed. Rich data representation can provide regulatory reviewers with relevant information in the appropriate format at each stage of the process. Data-rich models can generate automatic reports to demonstrate design compliance.
The Platform Engineering (P-DfMA) Solution described above and the simplification of processes resulting from this design, enable much simpler and standardized interactions between customers and producers and between the various producers that make up the supply chain to deliver these buildings. This allows us to achieve the scale and speed of refurbishments that are required.
Significant amounts of the design are simpler and can be done much more quickly by a wide range of designers. The components that make up the built solution can be mass produced by existing manufacturing supply chains. Significant parts of the assembly process can be done by non-nuclear construction supply chain, much more quickly, and decoupled from the nuclear parts of the building.
This all means that a wide range of coal plant fleet owners will now have access to a cost-effective, non-risky and speedy solution for replacing coal. A wide range of reactor manufacturers will have access to a significantly increased and different range of clients. Interesting large-scale, de-risked investment opportunities will become available, in companies that develop and deliver the constituent parts of the overall solution. This will become an attractive proposition for communities, to keep jobs, attract other investment and create a better local environment.
Together with Terra Praxis and the wider team, Bryden Wood are developing the standardized, P-DfMA engineering solution and the digital platform with the necessary tools and services to attract enough customers and enough suppliers to this system. Initially, our focus will be on the United States because the US is a large consumer of coal-based energy, and we are more familiar with the North American situation in terms of supply chains and regulations. But this approach is designed to be rolled out worldwide and to attract customers and supply chain partners to realize coal plant refurbishments in other critical locations. Fourth generation nuclear reactors will likely be available by 2027, by which time the platform will be sufficiently developed to realize carbon savings at a massive scale by the end of this decade. Alongside the massive deployment of renewables, the refurbishment of 2TWe of coal globally will make it possible for us to achieve the ambitious decarbonization targets we need to achieve, to stop climate change.
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