Fuel cells power systems on the rise

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Financial services provider Morgan Stanley opened a 250 kWe fuel cell on-site power system at its headquarters building in Purchase, New York last month. The solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) device from Bloom Energy is supplying both baseload power and a grid-independent supply to parts of the building’s critical loads.

So have stationary fuel cells gone mainstream in the US? Not yet, says the US Department of Energy’s 2013 Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report, also published last month. This suggests that the fuel industry is growing – world-wide sales passed $1 billion for the first time in 2013 and 150 MW of stationary fuel cells were shipped during the year, a quarter more than during 2012 and five times as much as during 2008. The report also points to some very large recent installations: a 15 MWe fuel cell power park opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and the start of a 59 MWe fuel cell power plant in Korea.
 

It also suggested that several early adopters of fuel cell technology are coming back for additional units – communications company Verizon, which first got involved with fuel cells in the early 2000s is now investing $100 million in a further 9 MWe of generating capacity for data centres and office buildings. The First National Bank of Omaha has upgraded to a new fuel cell system to safeguard its credit card processing operations and data centre in Nebraska. The need for security of supply is a clear driver in both cases.

Yet the technology support programmes of three states mean that they – California, Connecticut and New York – continue to dominate adoption of the technology in the US, with New Jersey now coming up alongside. The Morgan Stanley system described above was supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

One way forward could be the energy services company (ESCo) approach, as pioneered some years ago by the packaged CHP industry, under which customers buy power as a service, rather than owing the generating equipment. Bloom is already doing this, with ESCo Elexon Corporation providing finance for 21 MW of fuel cell projects planned at 75 commercial properties across – California, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, initially.

The clean energy attributes of fuel cells, which are electrochemical devices rather than relying on combustion of fuel and produce almost nothing in the way of pollutants, will surely see them widely used eventually. For the moment, state support programmes continue to close the funding gap.

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