New High School Goes Green
The Middletown High School and Vocational Agricultural Center will be one of the most technologically advanced secondary schools in Connecticut and one of only five primary and secondary schools in the state to earn a LEED certification from the federal government’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The US Green Building Council program ranks “green” building projects.
The city of Middletown, CT, is nearly 350 years old. But, never have its officials tackled a project as big as its new 283,000-square-foot high school. The facility, scheduled to open in September of 2008, will cost $106 million to build and will house more than 1,400 students.
A big reason for the school’s LEED certification, and its technological leadership, is the 200-kW fuel cell that will provide onsite power at the facility. The PureCell system from UTC Power, a division of United Technologies Corp. in Hartford, CT, will provide continuous power to the high school, offering the city of Middletown significant energy savings. It will also generate clean waste heat that the school will capture and use to heat the building and its swimming pool, reducing further the city’s energy costs.
For city officials, the move to go with fuel cells made economic sense. The fact that it will also help their new high school achieve a strong “green” ranking was a bonus. City and school officials now expect a growing number of school districts to follow their example, and rely on distributed energy to help power their own buildings.
“We are one of the first schools using this technology,” said Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano. “Everybody is watching us to see how it works. We’re confident that it will work well. Fuel cell technology itself is proven. It’s just the application of it that isn’t. We’re confident that others will see how well this program works at our school.”
A Needed Example
It’s clear that more Connecticut schools—and educational facilities across the country—should be exploring onsite power generation. School districts spend exorbitant dollar amounts on powering their buildings. By investing in onsite power to handle all or a portion of their energy needs, school districts can save a significant amount of money each year.
The Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University, in the summer of 2006, released a report on the energy inefficiency at Connecticut’s public K-12 schools. The study stated that Connecticut schools were among the least energy efficient in the nation.
In fact, if Connecticut’s public elementary and secondary schools simply raised their energy efficiency to average levels, they would save $46 million in annual energy costs, according to the study. If the schools raised their efficiency to federal Energy Star levels, the schools would save a total of $69 million in energy costs each year.
Energy inefficiency isn’t a problem only at public schools in Connecticut. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy estimate that school districts across the nation spend more than $6 billion every year on energy. That cost is second only to salaries.
The problem is a serious one in Connecticut. The Institute for Sustainable Energy in that state found that during the 2004–2005 academic year, Connecticut public K-12 schools spent more than $124 million on energy. Electric rates, though, rose in the state following that year. The report’s authors, then, estimated that annual energy costs for the state’s public elementary and secondary schools now exceeds $160 million. This hike has caused several school districts to take money away from other parts of their budgets. Some have declared hiring freezes.
|UTC Power’s fuel cells are now operating at 17 educational facilities in six states and Canada.|
By relying more on distributed generation, schools could significantly reduce these costs. At Middletown, for example, the UTC fuel cell will provide baseload power for the new high school. This will result in significant savings.
“When everybody is out of the school, and the school is shut down for the night, it is still consuming energy,” says Giuliano. “This will feed that baseload, and save us money.”
Erik Robie, a sales account executive with UTC Power, says that a fuel cell made sense for Middletown for two reasons: Fuel cells are one of the cleanest 24-hour, seven-days-a-week technologies currently on the market, and secondly, they produce heat as a byproduct. The new high school will be able to rely on free heat, for their swimming pool and at least a portion of the building’s interiors.
“The study shows that Connecticut schools are at the bottom of the barrel with how they rank in energy efficiency,” says Robie. “The people in Middletown knew they could save money by installing green energy alternatives.”
A Strong Record
UTC Power has worked with school districts before. The company’s fuel cells are now operating at 17 educational facilities in six states and Canada.
The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund is working to encourage more investment in alternative onsite power generation among schools. That’s part of the reason why the fund provided Middletown with a grant of $940,000, to help ease the cost of the fuel cell’s installation. That grant helped convince city officials that a fuel cell would prove as economical as it would reliable. UTC Power officials then provided the rest of the evidence.
The company worked with a financial consultant from the Connecticut Power and Energy Society, a group that promotes the use of alternative forms of energy, to provide an economic model showing the potential energy savings the city could realize from going with a fuel cell. The consultant compared the amount of energy charges the current high school incurred, to the estimated amount that the new, larger school would generate.
The positive difference convinced city officials to order a fuel cell for their new school. The economic benefits only grew when the city realized that it would also receive renewable energy credits by generating clean, onsite energy.
This was one of the reasons why Middletown went with a fuel cell, instead of a microturbine system. Though both technologies would provide the school with clean, efficient energy, the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund was willing to provide a larger grant to the city if it chose fuel-cell technology.
“This was a school project that had already gone over budget,” says Robie. “It is the biggest capital project that this town has ever done. So it was a challenge for them to add something like fuel-cell technology to this project. We had to show them how the economics would work, and, how the incentives could effect their costs.”
In addition, UTC had to educate the city’s officials on how fuel cells work, and why they were an appropriate fit at the high school.
“There is the perception out there that this is a new technology,” he says. “The town was not familiar with fuel cells and how they work. It was a foreign idea to them. So we did have to go through an educational process with them. It took a long time, but we wanted to make sure that they were completely comfortable with the idea.”
By installing the fuel cell, the new high school will receive one other benefit: The school can serve as an emergency shelter because, thanks to the cell, it does not need the grid to power a majority of its hallways, rooms, and equipment.
The fuel cell is not large enough to provide power to the entire school during the busiest portions of its day. Instead, the cell will provide a steady baseline level of power, by operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, handling the majority of the school’s energy needs. This is key in case of a sudden power outage: Because the fuel cell is already running, the transition from the public grid to the cell will take place without a hiccup, Robie said.
This isn’t always the case with traditional diesel-powered backup systems. Often, building personnel do not maintain the backup systems on a regular basis. Then, when they are needed during an outage, they don’t respond, says Robie.
A Simple System
Officials with the city of Middletown chose UTC Power’s PureCell fuel cell system, because it would provide clean, onsite energy, and cut down the power bills at their new high school.
That was the first reason. But, another reason why the city selected the PureCell system is that it’s a simple piece of technology, one that won’t overwhelm school maintenance staff with complicated service requirements. UTC Power also monitors the system remotely, so school staffers will rarely have to even think about the fuel cell.
“This really is a hands-off system,” Robie said. “Basically, it’s just a box design. The water-management and grid-management capabilities are all incorporated into the box. It’s just like placing a big box at the school. Once it’s there, the school’s workers don’t have to be concerned with anything; it operates itself. It knows when to isolate itself from the grid; it knows when to ramp up and down; it’s an all-in system.”
The PureCell system produces 200 kW of assured power, and generates about 900,000 Btus per hour of heat for combined heat-and-power applications.
The system is a grid-connected unit that operates in parallel with electric utilities. Clients can also choose a dual-mode configuration. This allows the unit to operate in connection with the public power grid, or independently of it. It can switch between modes on a pre-determined automated schedule, or on command.
“The thermal integration is fairly straightforward. We don’t need any auxiliary equipment to integrate the cell into the central plant at the school,” says Homer Purcell, vice president of sales with UTC Power. “Everything is in the box, if you will. We also have the ability to transition from quick-connect to grid-independent operation in a fast manner. Once we are in independent mode, we have the ability to load-follow. We don’t have a continuous stream of water in and out of the unit, either. We are in water balance at all times.”
Protecting the Environment
Fuel cells represent one of the cleanest forms of power generation. The PureCell system is no exception.
According to UTC Power’s Web site, the PureCell system meets the strictest emissions requirements in the US, requirements set out by the California Air Resources Board, in 2007.
The system is also extremely quiet. PureCell systems require no soundproofing. Compared with traditional combustion power plants, the PureCell system at Middletown’s new high school will eliminate more than 13,000 pounds of pollutants from the environment every year. The pollutants that the system cuts out are those that produce smog and acid rain. The fuel cell will also eliminate 935,000 pounds of carbon dioxide production each year, while emitting no harmful fumes.
The state of Connecticut has already seen the environmental benefits of UTC Power’s onsite power systems. In 2007, officials with Branford High School in Branford, CT, selected the company’s PureComfort trigeneration system to provide onsite power, cooling, and heating at the 1,200-student school.
The power system was the first in the state to provide simultaneous heating and cooling, using the hot exhaust from its natural gas-fired microturbines to drive a double-effect absorption chiller.
The PureComfort system can achieve an overall energy utilization of up to 90%. This easily beats the 33% typical of the electrical grid.
Compared with generating power from the grid, the system will save more than 2.5 million gallons of water every year, nearly enough water to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Officials in Middletown hope to see the same type of results.
An Educational Opportunity
Purcell says the Middletown fuel cell will serve as an educational tool for both the high school’s students, and for other potential purchasers of the technology. By taking potential customers to the school, UTC can show exactly how the fuel cell works. This can go a long way toward easing any concerns for customers, he adds.
“The ability to take customers to a reference site is extremely beneficial,” says Purcel. “This is still an emerging technology with new products. Many customers don’t quite understand how fuel cells work; they don’t know what to expect.”
According to Robie, teachers at the new Middletown High School and Vocational Agricultural Center will incorporate the fuel cell into the curriculum. Teachers will show students how the cell works, what it looks like, and what impact such systems can have on the environment.
The cell will serve as one example, for teachers explaining to their students the benefits of onsite power and alternative forms of energy. “Locating a fuel cell on a school campus, presents a unique opportunity to realize educational value from the project,” says UTC Power President Jan van Dokkum, in a press release. “Students can observe up close and directly, how clean energy works and benefits everyone.”
Officials with the Connecticut Green Building Council agree that including fuel-cell technology to the curriculum of high school students is positive.
But, the benefits of “green” schools go even farther, they say. Students learning in “green” schools show stronger academic performances, and benefit from healthier and more comfortable indoor environmental quality.
“We are already receiving tremendous positive feedback from the state,” acknowledges Robie. “A few other towns have embraced these onsite technologies; it’s been kind of a snowballing effect. A lot of towns are starting to call. They realize that we can provide them with a nice method of generating electricity. They realize that these systems can be a good fit at their buildings.”
Author's Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.