By Penelope B. Grenoble
The optimum word in the fuel cell industry these days is commercialization, followed closely by incentives. Among manufacturers, early adopters, and government agencies there is little doubt about the efficiency of the technology across a wide variety of applications, but the question remains how long before demand drives costs down. Meanwhile, a host of clean air initiatives backed by federal and state support for new technology and sustainable energy alternatives are driving industrial, institutional, and government projects that range from onion processing to television broadcasting.
“A broad suite of technologies is marching forward toward commercialization,” says James Warner, director of policy and external affairs for the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. “The biggest controlling factor in this country right now is policy support. South Korea has made a commitment to be running 50% off stationary fuel cells by 2030. Japan has 15,000 PEM fuel cells running on natural gas, and they’re getting ready to do another 15,000.” (See Additional Content: “Types of Fuel Cells”.)
“Our view is that fuel cell technology is versatile and can be a powerful part of meeting the various energy challenges we have in this country, whether it’s reducing air pollution or our dependence on foreign oil, or getting the best out of our natural gas resources. It’s a matter of getting the public to understand what it takes to bring not only fuel cells, but any new technology into the marketplace.”
The Two Kinds of Green
“We decided a long time ago that we didn’t want to wait for a hydrogen infrastructure,” says Tony Leo, vice president of applications for engineering and new technology development at Fuel Cell Energy Inc. “We have the technology in house for carbonate fuel cells that can make their own hydrogen from hydrocarbon fuels or biogas. The smallest is 300 kilowatts, the largest 2.8 megawatts. They produce high-temperature waste heat and have a 47% electrical efficiency.”
Leo describes how the elements coalesced to create a perfect environment for wide-scale fuel cell adoption. “Our customers currently fall into two primary categories: markets that have feed-in tariffs [like South Korea, where we’ve put in several 2.8-MW systems to generate power for sale to the electric utility]—and [those] which enjoy incentives for clean power.”
The clean power incentive is particularly strong in North America, according to Leo, who believes this subset of customers are “interested in generating electricity for onsite use to reduce the amount of power they have to buy from the grid.”
Regardless of individual need, Leo explains why both markets are valid. “Both types of applications include combined heat and power [CHP],” he explains. “Aside from whether you have a use for the waste heat, there are a number of factors that come into play in choosing fuel cells over other technology.”
Among those factors, according to Leo, is the going rate for grid-supplied power. “If it’s four cents a kilowatt, then you’ve got to really want to be sustainable,” he says. “But if you’re in California and you’re paying 13 cents, or in Connecticut where it’s 20 cents, it might not take very many incentives to make fuel cell technology an economic proposition.”
Nevertheless, duality is key says Leo. “The beauty of this approach is that it generates power for both ongoing power and backup—all in one installation.
“When you buy backup power in a conventional sense, an engine generator or a bank of batteries just sits there and does nothing until the lights go out,” he adds. “But a fuel cell is generating value constantly, and when the lights do go out, it becomes your backup. So it’s in constant service.”
Not to mention that fuel cells are space savers, don’t require temperature-controlled environments like battery-supplied UPS installations, and are easier to site inside or out, in part because permitting is easier in consideration of their low emissions.
Economical and Environmental
“There are a number of ways a fuel cell onsite can offer cost effective energy security,” says Rich Shaw, general manager of Eastern Region Sales for UTC Power. “The fact that you don’t have to do a major overhaul in a 10-year period contributes significantly to the economics of a fuel cell solution. Conventional utilities have been generating electricity at 30 to 35% efficiency since the 1930s. Just by virtue of the fact that we’re saving carbon dioxide emissions associated with this less effectively generated electricity is significant. Add to this that you’re capturing the heat and thereby offsetting the natural gas that would be used in a boiler or creating chilling through absorption.”
UTC Power, a Division of United Technologies, specializes in phosphoric acid fuel cell technology, which, according to Shaw, produces 42% electrical conversion efficiency, and in CHP applications it approaches and, in some cases exceeds, 90% total thermal efficiency.
|Photo: Fuel Cell Energy
An in-situ direct-fuel cell power plant from FuelCell Energy
|Photo: Fuel Cell Energy
The fuel cell stacks sit under the ridged outer casing to produce power from natural gas or waste biogas, as is the case at Orange County.
“And as long as you have a positive spark spread—the delta between the cost of electricity and cost of fuel—we’re seeing paybacks of three to four years,” he says. “So people are putting in these projects for the two types of green: money and environmental benefits. Our typical applications are sites that have a 24/7 demand for electricity at the level of, say, 3.5 million kilowatt-hours, a use for the heat and managers who want to be both economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Which is just what Beacon Capital Partners LLC, 2012 EPA EnergyStar Award Partner of the Year, was looking for in its large, and very prominent, midtown Manhattan office tower, where tenants include the worldwide headquarters of News Corporation and the broadcasting studios of Fox News. Beacon’s top management has a background in the development of privately owned and operated energy plants and saw an opportunity in this very large “trophy” property to install a well-designed distributed energy project.
“We understood the range of technologies, the legal aspect, and the financial aspects,” says Senior Vice President Al Scaramelli. “The New York State Energy Office had significant incentives for different types of distributed energy projects, one of which happened to be fuel cells, so we did some preliminary engineering and technical evaluation to see how much electricity and hot water the property used and how compatible this was with the fuel cells that were on the market. We weren’t interested in a token project. We wanted to do something that was significant.”
Before making the final decision, the company evaluated other types of alternative technology. There wasn’t enough roof space to do a significant solar project, and discounting any FAA issues with local airports, a wind turbine on top of the 50-story building meant structural modifications to withstand the torque. Once the decision was made to go with fuel cell technology, the question was logistics—where to put the 60,000-pound Purecell 400 UTC fuel cell in a building with no outside space that didn’t even have an underground parking garage. The building’s underground loading dock was eventually selected, three stories below the surface and served by two large truck elevators. The installation was supported by a $2 million construction grant from the state, the largest ever awarded.
The fuel cell provides 10% of the building’s power, and Scaramelli is quick to point out that the size of the application was defined in part by space constraints and the size of available technology, and in a smaller building an installation this size would likely account for a much larger percent of energy generation. Fox News buys all of the fuel cell-produced electricity, which amounts to 25% of its energy use, the rest of which it purchases from the grid at the same price. A portion of the hot water is used to heat some of the Fox News studios and in the company’s fitness center and kitchen. Another portion is used to heat the building lobby and in bathrooms for sinks and showers.
“News Corp. is not only a very large tenant in the building, they have a global commitment to sustainability,” says Scaramelli. Statistics indicate that using the fuel cell to generate part of the building’s electricity prevents the release of more than 675 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of removing more than 114 cars off the road or planting 150 acres of trees. And as Scaramelli points out, it also saves 4.3 million gallons of water annually.
“We wanted to prove to ourselves what it would be like to do this kind of installation, and we wanted to assess how reliable it would be,” he says. “The results have been extremely favorable. It’s quiet, which means no soundproofing, and there are no odors, air pollutants, or vibration, which makes it perfect for an office building. We have a 10-year service agreement with UTC Power that includes full maintenance and repairs.”
The fuel cell has also been wired to provide backup in case of a power outage, making things more comfortable and safe for the approximately 10,000 people who work in the building. “The fuel cell switches over and provides all the lights to the lobby, including lights and refrigeration for the lobby café,” adds Scaramelli. “And it keeps the arcade that connects 47th Street to 48th Street lit, a place that can provide standing room for some 2,000 people where they can feel protected and safe. So it’s value added, providing electricity to areas that wouldn’t be lit by emergency generators.”
Not Just Natural Gas
“We entered the market with a natural gas product,” says Leo, from Fuel Cell Energy Inc., “and our very first commercial customer was a biogas customer, so we learned early this was an important market. And we also learned, fortuitously, that the carbonate fuel cell likes biogas, which is essentially methane that’s diluted with carbon dioxide. And while this can be an issue for other types of power generators, the carbonate gas fuel cell actually likes carbon dioxide. The only issue is removing the sulfur that is typical in biogas.”
The Orange County Sanitation District and the US Department of Energy are currently involved in a three-year demonstration project at the district’s Fountain Valley wastewater treatment facility to use biogas from its digesters to fuel a Fuel Cell Energy fuel cell. The trigeneration facility generates 250 kW of electricity, heat, and hydrogen, which is then used to fuel a fleet of hydrogen-fueled automobiles. After cleanup, the gas stream enters the fuel cell where it is reformed into hydrogen.
Excess hydrogen not converted into electricity leaves the unit and is further purified to make it vehicle grade using technology from Air Products, enough for 25–30 fill-ups a day. (Air Products has 11 hydrogen fueling stations operating in California.) According to Jeff Brown at the Sanitation District, other partners include the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California Irvine, the California Air Resources Board, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The project is being carefully tracked, and the goal is to expand use of fuel technology in this type of tandem application.
Up the coast in Oxnard, CA, Gills Onions has installed what it calls an Advanced Energy Recovery System to convert 100% of its daily onion waste into electricity that provides up to 60% of its annual power requirements. The cost of electricity was significant in an operation that provides ready-to-use onions to the food service industry, in part because of extensive cooling and refrigeration involved in the processing.
Onion processing is also waste-intensive. Peeling an onion generates 35–40% waste, which means approximately 300,000 pounds of onion waste annually. Before the energy recovery system was built, this had to be hauled away and spread on fields, creating odors and attracting pests and potentially producing groundwater contamination. Now the juice is extracted from 75% of the peelings and treated in a high-rate anaerobic digester and used to power two 300-kW Fuel Cell Energy fuel cells. The remaining 75% is compressed fibrous solids sold as high-value feedstock. The company built the facility with nearly $6 million in tax incentives for renewable energy and estimates a six- to seven-year payback on its $10.8 million investment.
Warner thinks demand for energy generation using biogas as the fuel will only increase. “Wastewater treatment facilities, landfills, and agricultural waste are all major potential producers of biogas, which right now is making a significant contribution to climate change,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of uncontrolled methane sources in this country that can be harnessed to produce renewable energy.” He notes that right now the Rural Energy Assistance Program provides funds for production of renewable hydrogen technology.
On an entirely different front, Bend, OR-based IdaTech LLC is using PEM fuel cells to provide power for telecommunication sites with backup power needs ranging up to 15 kW in countries where the electric grid isn’t stable or severe weather and natural disasters can cause recurrent power interruptions.
“This type of fuel cell is appropriate to telecommunications applications because they’re compact, durable, and reliable,” says spokesperson Kathy Fosberg. “And they operate in a wide range of climates, from -40 degrees Celsius [-40°F] to 50 degrees Celsius [122°F].”
IdaTech fuel cell installations (using stacks from Ballard) can be fueled by pure hydrogen or what the company calls HydroPlus, a blend of methanol and water particularly suited to remote locations, which is used in combination with an integrated fuel reformer that’s included with the system. Methanol is a readily available, commercially produced fuel that is used in among other things, windshield washer fluid. It’s also easily transportable, biodegradable and sulfur free and has a low freezing point (-71°C, or -95.8°F).
The company is currently developing a model that runs on liquid petroleum gas for stationary onsite power generation and has installed a biofueled ElectraGen ME fuel cell system as backup for T-Mobile in California, made possible in part by a 30% federal rebate, as well as renewable rebates from the state. The biomethanol that fuels this application is produced by Netherlands-based BioMCN in a process that converts crude glycerin, a residue of biodiesel production, into renewable fuel.
Author’s bio: Penelope B. Grenoble
writes on issues concerning waste operations, equipment, and technology.