Last month, I posted a piece on fuel cell power as part of my series on energy: pros and cons. Then there was also a press release from Bloom about their plans to double their production capacity with an East Coast plant which we covered in detail here.
After those posts went up, I got deluged with interview requests from fuel cell manufacturers that couldn’t wait to tell me how much they really have going on.
The real story here is that fuel cell technology, which was once considered the panacea for all of our energy problems, especially in the automotive arena, was suddenly dropped like so many hot embers when investors learned that it would take a while to develop this technology. Now, several years down the road those hot embers have started new fires of their own, as numerous companies have not only continued improving their technology, but have developed some very interesting, and sizable niche markets that didn’t require waiting for the enormous chicken and egg problem (vehicles, refueling stations, technology) associated with the automotive application, to resolve itself.
In today’s post I’m sharing snippets of my conversation with Tony Leo, VP of Application Engineering at FuelCell Energy.
Triple Pundit: Hi Tony. Today I am chasing down rumors of a resurgence in fuel cells. They were once the greatest thing since sliced bread, then they went away, now they seem to be coming back again. What happened?
Tony Leo: In our business of making carbonate stationary fuel cells, we never really went away, we’ve been on a slow march to commercialization.
What has happened that is like a resurgence, is that we have gotten a lot of traction in large scale utility grid-connected markets in South Korea, that has really driven a lot of volume. That came after some significant market activity in California which was driven by their onsite power generation incentives program.
FuelCell Energy’s carbonate story hasn’t quite been subject to the same ups and downs which has really been about fuel cell vehicles, which is a market we haven’t been playing in. We are, however now working on a developmental product that could locally produce hydrogen for those kinds of vehicles. But our baseline commercial product runs on natural gas or biogas and is targeted towards stationary energy storage. And our story has just been getting units out there, getting people to see that they work well, driving down our costs, and growing our markets that way.
3p: Andy Marsh, at Plug Power told me that last week you guys were having great success in South Korea. Why South Korea? What’s happening over there?
TL: Well, it’s a couple of things. First of all they’re very interested in clean energy, but because of their geography, and their mountainous terrain, they can’t do very much with solar or wind. Secondly, they are very interested in economic development. Putting those things together, and given the fact that they have a decent liquefied natural gas (LNG) fuel supply, they said, ‘stationary fuel cells running on LNG or biogas sounds like a good, clean power source for our country, and if we can localize their production, that would be a great economic development thrust for us, too.” So basically that is what we have done together. They went on to put in place some incentive programs for larger scale grid applications, first a feed-in tariff program (like Germany has), and now a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). That provides credits that make fuel cell power generation economical for wholesale power into the grid. So you’ve got IPPs (Independent Power Producers) there putting in 10 MW, 11MW power plants, and selling power into this RPS market. As we’ve been expanding our activity there, we’ve also been increasing our localization. First, we sold complete power plants to POSCO, then we provided just the fuel cells and they provided the balance of plant (BOP), now they are assembling the fuel cell stacks, while we make the fuel cells here in Connecticut. It’s a win-win for both companies.
3p: Is that the final stage, or will they eventually produce the entire fuel cells?
TL: Eventually they will likely produce the fuel cells, too, under a licensing agreement in which we will collect royalties. They need that local economic activity to drive the incentive programs that drive these huge markets. In the mean time we will continue to partner with them as we develop our markets in North America as well as Europe.
3p: So what do your fuel cell power plants look like? Are they self-contained?
TL: The carbonate fuel cell essentially is a power plant that is configured in these modules that are relatively easy to install. We deliver the modules, they are placed on foundations, fuel is hooked up, electricity is hooked up, and you’re ready to make power.
Our smallest plant is a 300 kW product. We also have a 1.4 MW product and a 2.8 MW product. These all provide 47% electrical efficiency (compared to around 30% for a conventional coal plant). A number of our larger customers who want to sell more power combine these modules into larger plants. They are now working on a 60MW plant.
3p: And your customers are independent power producers (IPP) that sell directly in to the grid under the renewable portfolio standard incentive plan?
TL: Correct. Additionally, they are also finding local users for the waste heat that can be used to make steam or hot water which (through CHP) is an additional value stream and an additional carbon offset since the avoid the burning of additional fuels in boilers.
3p: Can you tell me about the use of biogas in your products?
TL: We selected the carbonate fuel cell technology because it can run on pipeline quality natural gas, which is mostly methane. It did not need a hydrogen infrastructure. It makes its own hydrogen inside the stack. As we started to commercialize, we got a lot of interest from people who had methane waste gas, such as what you would get from anaerobic digestion of municipal wastewater, or from a food processing facility. Even though we were focused on a natural gas product, out first commercial shipment turned out to be to a brewery that had a lot of “free” methane from digesting beer waste. This is turned into a substantial business in itself: a wastewater treatment plant in California, an onion producer, breweries, etc. In all cases, these operations have solid waste that they have to dispose of anyway, at an appreciable cost. So they disposed of that waste themselves, in these big digesters, producing methane which they often flared off. So, then we came along with our carbonate fuel cell that could use this stuff to produce clean electricity and it turned out to be a great match.
3p: Does the gas require any additional processing?
TL: All we have to do is take the sulfur out, which is less than what they would have to do to sell the natural into the natural gas pipelines.
3p: That’s great. Are you also looking at increasing your efficiency?
TL: Yes we are. We can use a type of combined cycle system based on an organic Rankine cycle, to extract additional power from the waste heat, giving us up to 57% efficiency. That’s an advantage of running a higher temperature fuel cell. We run at about 1100 degrees F, compared to phosphoric acid (United Technologies) at 500 degrees F and PEM (Plug Power) which runs at 90-150. The only hotter cell than ours is the solid oxide cell, which is used by Bloom. Another opportunity we are exploiting is the placement of our systems in natural gas pump down stations. It’s a hybrid fuel/cell turbine system that uses the waste heat from the fuel cell to preheat the gas before it goes into the turbine, without combustion. That system which is now running up at Enbridge headquarters in Canada is getting 70% efficiency. That’s probably our highest efficiency configuration.
3p: That’s some impressive innovation. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
[Image credit: Courtesy of FuelCell Energy]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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