Fuel cell technology makes its way into energy generation

Demand for fuel cells, while modest, is growing, and cost savings are getting noticed.

June 09, 2015 |
Fuel cell technology makes its way into energy generation

A 1.4-MW fuel cell power plant, installed on the campus of Central Connecticut State University in 2014, generates clean, round-the-clock baseload power. The fuel cell is part of a configuration, in which high-quality heat produces steam for campus heating and absorption cooling. Photo courtesy FuelCell Energy

Fuel cells have emerged as a small but potentially significant piece of the world’s energy puzzle. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated worldwide fuel cell system sales in 2013 at $1.3 billion, the first time the billion-dollar mark had been topped. Stationary power systems with an aggregate capacity of 150 MW were shipped in 2013, a 24% increase over the previous year.

Selling fuel cell power generation remains a tough business. One leading provider-installer-operator, FuelCell Energy Inc. (www.fuelcellenergy.com), stated in its 2014 annual report that its two biggest challenges to growth are reducing the total cost of fuel cells and getting major energy consumers to see the value that fuel-cell technology offers. The company reported net losses in each of its last five fiscal years.

FuelCell Energy is no Johnny-come-lately to this technology. Founded in 1969, the company has installed more than 100 plants operating at more than 50 sites in nine countries. A year ago, it entered into an agreement to install a 1.4-MW fuel cell plant that will provide about 30% of the power needs for the University of California Irvine Medical Center. Because that power will be generated without combustion, its exhaust will be virtually pollution free.

 

The fuel cell contributes to the site’s energy security, resiliency, and sustainability. Photo courtesy FuelCell Energy

 

Last November, Microsoft dedicated its $7.6 million zero-carbon data center in Cheyenne, Wyo. The facility draws power from a stationary fuel cell plant that converts biogas from a nearby municipal wastewater treatment facility into electricity. Microsoft, FuelCell Energy, and Siemens engineered and installed the power monitoring equipment for the data center.

Eighteen months ago, FuelCell Energy installed one of its 1.4-MW DFC1500 fuel cell power plants at Central Connecticut State University, in New Britain. The plant’s owner, Greenwood Energy, sells electricity and heat to CCSU under a long-term power purchase agreement. This is Greenwood’s first energy project with FuelCell Energy.

The plant integrates directly into the college’s existing energy infrastructure in a combined heat and power configuration. Rob Gagne, CCSU’s Plant Facilities Manager, says that the heat from the fuel cell plant produces 1,600–2,000 pounds of steam per hour. The steam is circulated across the 165-acre campus through a tunnel network and is used for heating and absorption cooling.

The plant provides about one-third of the 3,500–4,000 kw the university’s 40 buildings consume and cuts its annual electric power costs by $100,000.

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