“As far as we know, this is the largest hydrogen fuel cell system ever put into service,” said Guy McAree, spokesman for Ballard Power Systems, the manufacturer of the 1-megawatt, portable power plant.

It’s the size of a large shipping container mounted on an over-the-road trailer that will be shipped shortly from Burnaby, British Columbia, to Eastlake, Ohio. There, it will serve as a grid power peaker for FirstEnergy Generation Corp., a diversified electric company headquartered in Akron, Ohio.
The giant fuel cell system is based on Ballard’s proton-exchange membrane technology that has been successfully proven in a number of smaller commercial power applications ranging from 1 kilowatt (kW) up to 150 kW, including powering 40-foot mass transit buses.

Because fuel cells use hydrogen to generate electricity and produce only heat and water as byproducts, they are a more environmentally friendly means of generating power than diesel or coal. Because it’s on wheels, the unit can be moved to provide emergency power during outages for up to 500 homes or used to supplement power during peak load periods, such as during summer months when air conditioning demand is high.

“We are discovering that there is great opportunity for megawatt-scale clean-energy solutions using fuel cells. And, smaller-scale fuel cell systems can provide backup for telecom companies, for instance, if the grid goes down. Batteries don’t offer the runtime that is often required and diesel generators are expensive, dirty and noisy,” said McAree. Fuel cells are an interesting alternative—no moving parts, quiet, clean and scalable. “As long as you provide hydrogen fuel, they will keep running.”

According to McAree, Ballard has brought its product cost down by approximately 50 percent over the past two years, making hydrogen fuel cell technology more cost-competitive. Companies, such as Coca-Cola, Whole Foods and Walmart that have large distribution centers, are beginning to use hydrogen fuel cells rather than batteries to drive forklifts and other materials-handling equipment.

“We are finding in most applications that customers have to see dollar and cent savings. The environmental gain is a nice extra,” McAree said.