Powering Through the Storm

FUEL CELLS, MICROGRIDS, AND ALWAYS-ON POWER

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Extreme Networks’ products are the digital backbone of its customers’ businesses. The company provides networking and security solutions to more than 30,000 customers around the world. Schools, universities, retailers, hospitals, sports venues, and governments rely on Extreme to keep them running. The company understands better than most the cost of a business interruption.

Imagine, then, the impact on Extreme’s business when it suffered three separate power outages at its San Jose offices in the summer of 2018.

Company leadership quickly took the initiative to find a sophisticated alternative source of energy that would provide reliable power in the event of future outages.

Extreme elected to develop a microgrid powered by solid oxide fuel cells that would provide uninterruptable electricity for the company’s critical engineering and IT activities. In addition to guarding against future failures, the microgrid has enabled Extreme to strengthen its commitment to environmental sustainability by reducing energy usage 25 percent and CO2 emissions by 20 percent.

Extreme’s experience is becoming more commonplace in California, the state that leads the country in power outages. In 2017, 438 separate outage events caused by weather, falling trees, faulty equipment, human error, and others causes resulted in more than 25,000 minutes or 17 days of outages across the state. The number of outages has been steadily increasing for the past decade.

California is far from an outlier when it comes to power disruptions. Nationwide, there were more than 3,500 power outages in 2017, triggered by a surge in tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and other catastrophic weather events.

Worse still, according the US Energy Information Administration, the duration of utility outages doubled between 2016 and 2017, again as a result of an increase in extreme weather events. The total cost to the American economy for the 2017 blackouts was just over $150 billion.

Microgrid Adoption Surges in North America

In the wake of spiraling outage costs and the increased risk of interruption, businesses, universities, hospitals, and other organizations throughout the world are embracing microgrids.

According to Navigant Research, more than 500 new microgrid projects were commissioned or deployed around the world in the past six months, with North America leading the adoption.

A microgrid is a smaller, smarter and more efficient electric grid that allows any organization to operate in parallel with, or independent from, the larger grid.

Microgrids deployed in an always-on configuration facilitate the elimination of expensive and rarely used, uninterruptible power supplies and high-pollutant, greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies such as diesel generators.

Microgrids Enable Businesses to Scale

Power quality fluctuations and outages are driving demand for microgrids, but some companies are adopting them to add power capacity when a local utility is unable to do so swiftly.

Photoelectronics manufacturer II-VI Inc., for example, developed a microgrid at its Warren, N.J., facility to help scale manufacturing of its powerful 3D sensing technologies.

Faced with a local electric utility that was unable to meet II-VI’s growing electricity demands, the company built a 2.5-megawatt microgrid power system, again powered by solid oxide fuel cells. The site was up and running in under nine months. This allowed a faster expansion of II-VI manufacturing capacity to meet market needs without the delay and expense of leasing a new facility due to grid constraints.

In addition, by using high-efficiency fuel cells as its primary source of power, II-VI is reducing CO2 emissions by 15 million pounds per year relative to the power that the company would have bought from the New Jersey grid. About 50 percent of the power generated in the New Jersey grid comes from combusting fossil fuels.

Fuel Cells: A Future-Proof Technology Ready for a Zero-Carbon Future
The US has reduced energy-related carbon emissions by 14 percent since 2005. According to the Energy Information Administration, more than 60 percent of this decline can be attributed to the shift from coal to natural gas.

Fuel cells, such as those in the Bloom Energy Servers, convert natural gas to electricity with the highest electrical efficiency of any device, further reducing CO2 emissions relative to the power that they offset from the US grid. And, since they operate 24/7, Bloom Energy Servers reduce carbon emissions as effectively as renewables.1 In addition, they produce electricity via an electrochemical reaction rather than combustion, resulting in no emissions or other pollutants.

Better still, it is the hydrogen extracted from natural gas that powers fuel cells, meaning the same technology can be powered by zero-carbon biogas or hydrogen as it becomes more abundantly and affordably available. Today, companies such as IKEA and Apple run their fuel cell systems on biogas, but for most companies the cost premium is prohibitive.

Bloom Energy has already demonstrated that waste biogas from landfill, water treatment and agriculture can successfully be used to power its fuel cells.

As states such as California ramp up solar production, it’s possible that excess solar power will be used to separate hydrogen from sea or inland water to produce sufficient supplies of hydrogen, too.

Fuel cells are addressing the consequences of climate change in the form of resilient microgrids and addressing the causes of climate change with the capability to transition to clean and zero-carbon fuels. No other energy technology can claim to be doing the same.

References

1. “How Fuel Cells Reduce Carbon Emissions As Effectively As Renewables,” Bloom Energy white paper, April 2019.

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