It has been three decades since fuel cell technology first emerged, but the clean and efficient power alternative is just now beginning to take off. At the rate it is turning up in large companies over the past few years, within another decade fuel cells will be producing electricity for homes as well as businesses. Fuel cell technology is becoming increasingly prevalent as prices come down and demand grows. Because of its ability to provide recycled heat energy and uninterrupted power, an increasing number of businesses are turning toward this alternative for powering their facilities.

Manufacturing of fuel cells is increasing along with installation jobs for electrical contractors. Those who have made this technology their specialty are finding themselves busier than they’ve ever been.

One company that has been at the forefront of this growing trend is UTC Fuel Cells; part of UTC Power, owned by United Technologies Corporation. In one year, this leading maker of fuel cell equipment has delivered 255 fuel cell units to 19 countries on five continents. Most have been in the United States and Japan. UTC often installs its own units, but works with a handful of electrical contractors as well.

The units cost is $900,000 installed, which breaks down to $4,500 per kilowatt. Not cheap, Peter Dalby of UTC communications pointed out. But there are incentives that can make the cost the best alternative.

For example, the Central Park police station in New York uses fuel cell power because it had outstripped their grid feed. Officials found themselves in a load pocket where they could not get electricity, Dalby said. So instead of extending a natural gas line through the park, they installed a fuel cell unit at a lower cost. The Times Square Conde Nast building also uses fuel cell power installed by UTC.

UTC’s PC25 is a 200kW unit with 900,000 BTUs per hour. Its efficiency is about 40 percent, but with reuse of waste heat, it can be up to 80 percent efficient. Heat recycling is one of the strongest selling points for fuel cell power.

Heat coming from the unit can be “cogenerated” to heat a building. Fuel cells also generate power continually, and computer outages normally seen with grid fluctuations are eliminated. Facilities using the PC25 have assured power. If an outage occurs, power will be uninterrupted. Power is available 99.9999 percent of the time when connected to the electric grid. Most commonly, fuel cells are still being used by hospitals and other companies that cannot afford a power interruption. They are also becoming a power source of choice for major credit card companies as well as some schools and detention facilities. Still the No. 1 barrier is cost. Although it’s expensive to install, once it is in place, the fuel cell system’s efficiency reduces the energy bill of the facility.

Environmental impact is another major consideration for consumers. Because electrical energy is generated without combusting fuel, fuel cells are extremely attractive environmentally. When used in the place of traditional combustion power plants, fuel cells eliminate 40,000 pounds of acid rain and smog-causing pollutants from the environment per year. Existing fuel cell units reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 3.5 million pounds per year.

How they work

To put it simply, fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical process; energy stored in a fuel is converted directly into DC electricity. A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen—or hydrogen-rich fuel—and oxygen. The fuel cells consist of an electrolyte material between two thin electrodes. Inside the fuel cell a catalytic reaction takes place in the input fuel which creates an electric current. The input fuel passes over the electrodes, where it catalytically splits into ions and electrons. The electrons go through an external circuit to serve an electric load while the ions move through the electrolyte toward the opposite charged electrode. At the electrode, ions combine to create by-products which are primarily water and CO2. The output DC electricity is then converted to AC electricity. Depending on the input fuel and electrolyte, different chemical reactions will occur.

There are four primary types of fuel cells which are based on the electrolyte employed: phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, solid exide and the proton exchange membrane. The last of these, the PEM fuel cell, is the focus of UTC for future, less-expensive fuel cell electricity. UTC is working on a cheaper unit that they hope will lower costs by 50 percent using the proton exchange membrane fuel cell. The company is also engaging more of the supplier base; going to them to design parts for them to lower manufacturing costs.

Another trend that is making fuel cells more viable is recycling the waste heat from the fuel cell units. The savings related to this is an incentive for businesses either who already have fuel cell power or who are planning to install it.

Thermo-electric devices generate electricity from a fuel cell heat source. Companies are in the process of developing more economical TE devices that further increase power generation efficiency. Organizations such as the Department of Defense are using fuel cell power and the TE device for supplemental electric power generation from sources of waste heat.

In the Army now

The United States Army is using fuel cell generated power with considerable success. The use of waste heat by TE devices leads to increased electrical generation efficiency and reduced environmental impacts.

The Army’s TE devices were integrated into existing fuel cell power plants as well as other sources of waste heat, such as boiler systems. The electrical energy from the extra heat is recycled into the existing utility grid or to other systems.

Phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFC) were installed at 30 U.S. Department of Defense bases between 1994 and 1997. The money for this project came in the amount of $18 million appropriated by the U.S. Congress in 1993. An additional $18.75 million was appropriated in FY94 to expand the program.

Since then fuel cells have been installed in eight categories of Department of Defense buildings in 17 states. Seven of the fuel cells are designed to provide back-up electrical power should the utility grid experience a power outage.

Another large customer is Verizon. In 2002, UTC supplied Verizon with fuel cell units at a 332,000 square-foot facility in Garden City, N.Y., that delivers local phone service to 40,000 Verizon customers on a 24-hour basis. The facility itself more than 1,000 employees.

The fuel cells, which together generate 1.4MW of electricity, provide primary electrical power for the facility. This makes it one of the largest fuel cell installations in the world. Verizon also plans to install four natural gas powered generators to operate in parallel with the fuel cells as a hybrid system that can generate up to 4.4MW of electrical power. The generators will serve as backup power, along with the electrical grid and batteries.

Last year, UTC Fuel Cells installed six units at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown. The units form a 1.2MW microgrid to provide power to buildings on the campus.

UTC Fuel Cells has manufactured the PC25 power plant since 1991. Those power plants using the fuel cells have together accumulated nearly 5 million hours of operation.

It is just a matter of time before the fuel cell will permanently alter the energy industry. Companies that have been big supporters of fuel cell development are enjoying a rise in stock value. From major utilities to automakers, planners are already integrating the fuel cell into their long-range strategies. Market analysts are predicting that fuel cells will become a $1 billion market in the next decade. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer, based in Somerset, N.J. She can be reached at claireswed@aol.com.