Fuel cells become new energy option
By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 5:15 a.m.
BETH SCHLANKER/Press Democrat
The owners of Stone Edge Farms looked at various alternative energy devices for the Sonoma estate vineyard before choosing a fuel cell system, which produces electricity from natural gas.
“The more we looked at it, the more sense it made,” said Michael Bartlett, an employee who oversees the 5 kilowatt system installed last fall. “And it was a really good fit for the application here.”
Benefits for vineyard owners Mac and Leslie McQuown include warming the estate's 11,000-gallon lap pool with heat created as a byproduct of the fuel cell. Also, the system will pay for itself in about eight years, Bartlett said, less time than required for recovering the cost of a solar system.
Commercial fuel cells first appeared a half century ago and were used to provide both electricity and drinking water on early U.S. space flights. Essentially, the technology breaks down hydrogen so that its electrons can power electric devices.
But fuel cells remain far less common than solar power systems in the United States. Sonoma County has only two fuel cell systems, both installed in the last year. One is the largest in California.
And the U.S. fuel cell industry employed only 7,000 workers in 2010, considerably less than the 24,000 working in the solar photovoltaic segment, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution.
Even so, from 2003 to 2010, employment in fuel cell companies grew by 10 percent a year, more than double the national rate for job growth.
“Fuel cells have seen rather explosive growth,” said Jonathan Rothwell, a co-author of the Brookings' report, “Sizing the Clean Economy.”
The biggest challenge remains finding ways to reduce the expense of building and operating fuel cell systems.
“The technology is basically in good shape, but it costs too much,” said Elton J. Cairns, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UC Berkeley. He has been working with fuel cells since 1959.
In the next few years, Cairns said, consumers probably will start to see the technology used in small devices that can recharge laptops or cell phones. And while some forklifts and airport utility vehicles already are powered by the technology, the toughest product will be fuel cell automobiles for the mass market.
A fuel cell uses hydrogen to produce electricity, with water and heat as the common byproducts.
In systems that use natural gas, some type of catalyst process first separates out the hydrogen, which then passes into the fuel cells. There, a chemical process takes place to break down the hydrogen into negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions. The ions pass through a substance known as an electrolyte. The electrons can't pass through the electrolyte and instead must travel via an electrical circuit to reach the other side of the cell, creating the electric current.
In California, fuel cell systems are providing electricity at such varied locales as the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, California State University Northridge, Cache Creek Casino and the Westin Hotel at the San Francisco Airport.
PG&E counts 67 such systems in its service area of Central and Northern California.
And Sonoma County government boasts the largest fuel cell system in the state, a 1.4 megawatt plant that began producing power earlier this year for the main complex in Santa Rosa.
“This fuel center basically provides 90 percent of our electricity needs for the county center,” said Sam Ruark, manager for the county's Energy Watch program. The heat created also helps the campus boiler system provide heat to buildings there.
The fuel cell system cost $9.5 million, but the county immediately received back $3 million from a state incentive program with funds provided by utility ratepayers. It was part of a $20 million energy savings program for the county center.
With the combined improvements, the system's annual costs don't exceed what the county formerly paid in its utility bills, Ruark said. Over 25 years, the county estimates the fuel cells and other improvements will amount to $38 million in savings.
As well, it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6,100 tons per year — equal to taking nearly 1,100 cars off the road, Ruark said.
Fuel cell companies also are targeting users who want much smaller systems. Stone Edge Farms became the first winery to purchase a system from ClearEdge Power, an 8-year-old company based outside Portland in Hillsboro, Ore.
The 250-worker company has created about 100 such systems that are installed or under construction. Most are in California, with a small number in South Korea.
“The market we're going after is under 100 kilowatts,” said Mike Upp, vice president of marketing. “A target customer is somebody who uses a lot of heat and a lot of power.”
That includes wineries, hotels, club houses with pools and homes about 5,000 square feet or larger in size.
A 5 kilowatt system, such as the one at Stone Edge, costs about $65,000 after various incentives, Upp said. Their standard system stands 5.5 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 2 feet deep.
The payback time is typically five to 10 years, he said.
The future of fuel cells is tied to the bigger questions of public investment in the 2.7 million sector that the Brookings Institution calls the Clean Economy — everything from public transit to renewable energy.
“This is somewhere where the government has to play a role,” said Rothwell, the senior researcher with the Brookings Institution. The actions, he said, “don't necessary have to be a big drain on the Treasury,” but they can result in accelerating growth for a nation seeking to create more jobs.
On a local level, the outcome of public incentives could affect a $48 million county project for using fuel cells to help produce energy from chicken manure.
The county Board of Supervisors last month approved the project put forth by the county Water Agency. The proposal drew attention because officials disclosed that the fuel cell system's power is projected for 15 years to cost more than electricity bought on the wholesale market.
On Friday, Water Agency spokeswoman Amy Bolten said the fuel cell option could depend on what, if any, state incentives become available for such systems. Currently the incentive program has been suspended, she said.
Construction is slated to begin in October. Even so, the agency eventually may need to find an alternative to fuel cells to take advantage of the methane produced from the chicken waste.
“We're kind of in a holding pattern,” Bolten said.