On-Site Power

Fuel Cells to Play Important Role in Power Generation

Imagine a source of power that is virtually emission-free, highly reliable, occupies small spaces and can generate enough electricity to power thousands of homes.

It’s not a pipe dream. The technology has been around for a while and it is increasingly being deployed in the U.S. and abroad to meet public demand for clean, reliable electricity.

More homes, businesses and utilities are turning to fuel-cells to meet their power generation needs. Installing groups of modular fuel-cell systems to create small power plants ranging from 5 MW to 63 MW in size is a growing market.

Several large-scale fuel-cell power plants have been built in Connecticut, Delaware and California.

Just last month, state officials in Connecticut approved plans to build what will be the largest fuel cell power plant in the world. Equipped with 21 fuel cells, the 63.3-MW Beacon Falls fuel cell power plant will surpass the 59.9-MW fuel cell plant in South Korea. The Beacon Falls Project will be capable of generating enough electricity to power 60,000 Connecticut homes and is expected to be completed in 2019. 

The power plant and substation will be built on about eight acres. A solar plant would require about 10 times more land to achieve the same amount of output.

In addition, fuel cells, which use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, have no moving parts, making them inherently quiet and ideal for use in urban settings where the power is actually consumed. This limits the need for transmission and distribution lines, thus reducing the risk of power outages caused by ice storms and heavy winds.

The hydrogen used in fuel cells can be produced by a variety of fuels, including natural gas. A fuel cell splits hydrogen into electrons and protons. As protons pass through the cell’s thin plastic membrane, the electrons are forced into a circuit, creating an electric current.

Although our universe is 80 percent hydrogen, it is almost never found naturally by itself because it’s locked up in other compounds like water and cellulose. That’s why the source of hydrogen is natural gas or methane. The electrochemical reaction creates water vapor, eliminating the harmful emissions of a combustion engine.

What’s more, the cost of fuel cells is dropping thanks to increasing demand, or better economies of scale, making the technology even more attractive.  

Leading fuel cell manufacturer FuelCell Energy Inc. will supply the fuel cells for the Beacon Falls project.

Since power from fuel cells has been deemed renewable in 13 states, including Connecticut, the power from these systems can be used to comply with new standards for renewable power, also known as renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

“This one project meets about 10 percent of the State of Connecticut’s RPS requirements for 2016, and no state funds are needed as private capital will be used to finance the project,” said Chip Bottone, chief executive officer of FuelCell Energy.

Bottone’s company has fuel cell power plants up and running in more than 50 locations worldwide.

Fuel cells have several advantages over other more common forms of onsite power. They are significantly cleaner, quiet, less expensive to operate, and require little real-estate.

Dominion Resources owns the largest fuel cell power plant in North America, a 15-MW project in Bridgeport, Connecticut, capable of producing enough electricity for about 15,000 homes. Dominion sells the power to Connecticut Light & Power under a 15-year power purchase agreement.

Fuel cells are not a new technology. They have been long associated with the NASA space program and transportation vehicles. In recent years, though, the applications and markets for fuel cells have expanded. Fuel cells are being used for primary power, backup power, emergency power, and auxiliary power. They are used to power hotels, hospitals, universities, and data centers for Apple and eBay.

As the cost of centralized power rises, the cost of decentralized power continues to fall. Some power professionals believe the days of centralized power are numbered. That point of view is a bit extreme, but fuel cells are without question going to play a starring role in what will be a significant transition to distributed generation.

If you have a question or a comment, contact me at [email protected]. Follow me on Twitter @RussellRay1.