In the October and November issues of 2000, we described a large International Fuel Cells (IFC) (www.internationalfuelcells.com) system installation for the Mail Processing Center at Anchorage, Alaska. Redi Electric was the electrical contractor, and Dalton N. W. Electric and Communication, Inc., prepared the Center’s electrical system inside the building. Here is an update on that project and on other fuel cell developments.

Mail center’s low-voltage power

Redi Electric installed the Anchorage Mail Center site power distribution (medium-voltage 7,200/12,473 volts), low-voltage distribution between the modules, and the control wiring between modules and site lighting. Robert Nelson, president, explained, “The site management system building was the most labor-intensive building. We expended over 2,500 person-hours for this project during the winter.”

While his personnel took no special training, Nelson believes that a manufacturer’s preconstruction on-site meeting to review questions would have helped. He also said that fuel cell technology will prove invaluable to development of Alaska and that his company plans to be more involved in developing the technology.

Nelson said, “We have an obligation to stay abreast of all new technologies that may prove beneficial to our clients. Fuel cell technology will affect individuals in their professional and personal lives and will have a dramatic impact on the quality of life for individuals living in remote areas. Fuel cells will certainly be more environmentally friendly and should be more cost-effective.”

Connecticut school’s power supply

In March 2001, Connecticut awarded a contract to Select Energy (SE) (www.selectenergy.com) for the construction, operation, and maintenance of a central energy plant to supply power to the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. The power source includes six 200 kW fuel cells manufactured by IFC, which are connected in parallel to the region’s electric power grid. Select-HEC is the energy services company (ESCO) for SE.

Spokesman Joel Weinberg advised electrical contractors to “see the bigger [fuel cell] picture, ask who the movers and shakers are, and get in partnership with them.” This enables SE to tell the customer, “We can work together to manage your energy portfolio and to meet your many different needs.” Weinberg predicted that, while at first people might not feel the need for distributed generation, they will once fuel cells become more affordable.

Herb Healy, program manager for the Engineering and Sales Support Division, IFC, believes that with the ongoing problems of trying to build or expand central power plants, distributed energy, especially fuel cells, becomes a “work around” solution. Electrical contractors, he said, need to be more familiar with electrical interconnections and the implications of the local grid, especially with state and code requirements.

Peter Dalpe, an IFC spokesperson, said the fuel cell will operate on pipeline natural gas and initially will be connected to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) electric grid. William Miller, president of IFC, said the California energy crisis has heightened public awareness of clean distributed generation technologies, such as the PC25 fuel cell. IFC just sold a PC25 fuel cell system to the LADWP. This drives the growing fuel cell market.

National security considerations

The Bush-Cheney National Energy Policy Report of May 2001 recommended that an income tax credit be created for the purchase of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles and the funding of the fuel cell-powered transit bus program. Generally, the report urged research and development to focus efforts on integrating current programs regarding hydrogen, fuel cells, and distributed energy.

In addition, it warned that the “vast nationwide network of generating facilities, transmission lines, pipelines, and refineries that converts raw resources into usable fuel and power...is deteriorating, and is now strained to capacity.”

The Sept. 11 attacks have called attention to the need for heightened security of the nation’s power infrastructure. Increased demand for distributed generation (i.e., location of smaller power sources closer to the loads to prevent large-scale disruptions resulting from sabotage of the nation’s power grid) would be a possible solution. Fuel cells offer a potential solution through bypassing the national grid and enabling owners to enjoy “home grown” power.

Unregulated utility affiliates also can sell and service fuel cells as an alternative to retail power from wholesale merchant generators.

New fuel cell rules in codes and standards
Brooke Stauffer, director of codes and standards at the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) said, “Recognizing the importance of fuel cells to the future of distributed generation, the 2002 NEC will contain new rules governing their safe installation.

New Article 691, ‘Fuel Cells,’ is generally modeled after the existing NEC Article 690 on photovoltaic systems, but contains definitions and other technical information specific to fuel cells. Likewise, it omits certain provisions of the photovoltaic Code article that aren’t necessary with fuel cells.”

“Because fuel cells are evaluated and listed as an integrated system, rather than assembled in the field from separate components, the Code rules for these clean, renewable energy sources can be simpler than for other interconnected power sources. While new NEC Article 691 covers the electrical aspects of installed fuel cell power systems, fire safety considerations such as adequate ventilation are covered in NFPA standard 853, ‘Installation of Stationary Fuel Cell Power Plants.’”

Technical challenges for investments

The Issue 2, March 2001Primen Perspectives report on distributed energy (by Nicholas Lenssen and Kevin Reuter) warns against dismissing the longer-term potential of fuel cells to radically alter the electric power marketplace for three reasons: because large companies are continuing to make investments in fuel cell technologies and related components, environmental rules continue to become more stringent, and energy users will continue to pursue solutions that offer more secure power delivery.

The technical challenges and cost issues of fuel cells can be categorized as follows:

• Reformers for processing fuels into hydrogen. Reformer cost, efficiency of converting fuel to hydrogen, and their ability to cycle (turn off and on) remain the main areas of uncertainty with this critical component for proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells.

• Stack life (particularly for PEMs). Few companies developing PEM technology have reported stack life beyond 10,000 hours; yet for stationary residential applications, it may need to be guaranteed for far longer.

• Power electronics (and overall systems integration). Inverters that convert DC to AC and other power electronics in a fuel cell system still represent a cost that must be reduced. Also, the overall integration of the reformer, the fuel cell stack, and the back-end power electronics has not been optimized, nor has lifetime for units in the field been proven.

Strategic relationships

Contractors need to be adept at creating strategic relationships with customers, manufacturers, and utilities that foster their role in fuel cell markets.

Fuel cells will be used in residential and larger commercial facilities. Residential installation will soon be introduced in a Chicago-area pilot project to assess the technical, economic, and environmental benefits of using small fuel cell generating systems.

Dan Rastler of EPRIsolutions calls the project “a step toward decentralized mini-grids where communities might be partially served by residential size or larger distributed resources.” According to Maurie Gamze of Community Energy Cooperative, the fuel cells are pre-commercial units, designed for single- and multi-family dwellings. He believes that fuel cells are an ideal power source for residences, since they have good efficiency at low loads.

TAGLIAFERRE is proprietor of the CEC Group in Springfield, Va. He can be reached at (703) 321-9268, or by e-mail at lewtag@aol.com. GREENWOOD has been a lecturer with the University of Maine’s Department of Sociology for 15 years. She can be reached at susanfg@maine.edu or (207) 581-2394.