Published In November 2000
In Part I of this two-part article (EC October 2000) on development of fuel cells, we described the basic technology and answered some frequently asked questions. We noted that contractors have a window of opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a possible fuel cell-sparked energy revolution. This conclusion of a two-part article addresses practical issues and describes two realistic case histories. We conclude with recommendations for contractors who are deciding whether or not to pursue this new technology. What should contractors do now? Interviews with knowledgeable sources have yielded the following advice about fuel cell markets for electrical contractors: * Contractors must be aware of the rapidly developing fuel cell technology and become knowledgeable regarding the methods of interfacing fuel cells with the power grid. * Contractors must stay up-to-date with the codes and standards being promulgated by the agencies listed above; * Contractors need to be adept at creating strategic relationships with customers, manufacturers, and utilities that foster their role in fuel cell markets. * Contractors can begin to learn the methods of fuel cell installation and maintenance to be in position for these opportunities as they emerge. * Contractors can help create new fuel cell demand by helping to convince consumers, owners, and designers of the many benefits and issues involved. The following case studies reveal the opportunities for both smaller and larger electrical contracting firms. Commonwealth Electric and the First National Bank of Omaha Gary Demmel, vice president of Commonwealth Electric’s Omaha, Neb. office, said that although this was his firm’s first fuel cell installation, no major problems were encountered. This fact was borne out by William Cratty, president of Sure Power Corporation, Danbury, Conn., the general contractor who reported that fuel cell manufacturer ONSI’s equipment guidelines were clear and straightforward. In reviewing the project, Demmel emphasized the critical need for coordination among HDR Engineering, the primary consulting firm; Sure Power, the provider of the entire power system; ONSI, the manufacturer of the fuel cell; Commonwealth Electric, the installer; and First National Bank of Omaha, the customer. (See www.onsicorp.com for more information.) Demmel observed that there is big potential for critical power with high availability, especially for data centers. Contractors, he said, need to be aware of the necessity for these requirements. For actual installation, contractors should review the process well ahead of time. Space was at a premium with the FNBO installation, so most of the conduit and wire layout had to be done in the concrete slab. This took foresight and planning. South County Hospital, Wakefield, R.I. The opportunity for electrical contractors to enter the fuel cell marketplace presents both possibilities and pitfalls, according to Thomas A. Aubee, President of Alternate Energy Corporation (AEC), a subsidiary of Valley Resources, Inc. Aubee warned that if electrical contractors aren’t prepared, there could be problems. If a fuel cell goes offline, based upon the type of fuel cell it may, in fact, demand kilowatts instead of producing kilowatts. Aubee noted that this fact is the single most important aspect of fuel cell installation. Another significant point is that fuel cell economics are best when they are operated in base load mode (i.e., lots of operating hours) and the thermal byproduct is used. Aubee speaks from experience. His company, together with an electrical contracting firm, installed the first fuel cell in a New England hospital, South County Hospital in Wakefield, R.I. Very careful planning went into this project, and a byproduct of that careful planning was the obvious mutual respect and appreciation between the principals. In addition, they all had words of wisdom for electrical contractors. Kenneth Soscia, the hospital’s facilities manager, notes that contractors need to be educated as much as possible about fuel cells: that they need to know where not to put their fingers and to ask the right questions. For example, he said, while a fuel cell may provide a certain number of kilowatts, it can’t provide maximum output immediately at startup; it loads up in a specific sequence. Aubee provided the traditional carpenter’s caution, “Measure twice; cut once.” The principals noted that the project required many, many meetings—with ONSI, the manufacturer of the fuel cell, with AEC, with the utilities, and with the hospital personnel. This emphasis on communication contributed to the successful installation and the subsequent interest from a wide variety of places, including Argentina. One principal highlights the role of electrical contractors in such a project: Through thoughtful coordination, their primary concern must be to meet the customer’s needs. This means a good working relationship with the manufacturer, installer, and whoever else is involved. All emphasized making a site visit to a previously installed unit or to the manufacturer, and preferably both. While manufacturers supply guidelines, there is a gap between those guidelines and what actually exists in the field... a real learning curve. Aubee noted AEC sometimes has to rewrite the installation specifications. Nothing will go exactly as planned, so Aubee urges electrical contractors to do the following: * ensure that the fuel cell technology is suitable for the particular application; * review (and review again) the project’s scope of supply; * make sure the vendor has assumed responsibility and will stand behind the work; * do the above prior to setting the final price; * be flexible; * conservatively estimate the expected maintenance costs since little dependable, empirical history of these costs is available. Expanding horizons for electrical contractors Plug Power, Latham, N.Y., has grown from 22 employees to over 500 in the last three years. It recently reorganized to emphasize fuel cell manufacturing and marketing, reportedly gearing up to sell 100,000 units per year. Gary Mittleman, Plug Power president at the time of the interview, said, “The fuel cell industry will create more jobs and more business in electrical contracting. Contractors need to keep an eye on the technology, but they shouldn’t feel pressured to do everything right now. Contractors need to watch the developing technology and support it. If some feel that this form of distributed generation might be a threat, that could tend to slow down the technology.” In February 1999, Plug Power entered into an agreement with General Electric for distribution and service of the company’s residential fuel cell systems. See www.plugpower.com and www. gemicrogen.com for more information. Mittleman’s vision ranged from providing fuel cells to remote vacation homes in the United States, and thus replacing noisy generators, to villages in underdeveloped areas of the world where residents have not previously been received electrification. Mittleman’s successor is Greg Silvestri. The Times Union quoted him on August 23 as saying that the company’s prime focus was to move its fuel cells out of the lab and into the home. On Sept. 14, a class action lawsuit was filed against Plug Power claiming the company misrepresented the potential relationship with GE and failed to accurately report that the timetable for commercial production might be longer than investors were led to believe. The plan was for GE Microgen to market Plug Power fuel cells through local utilities, subcontractors, and to HVAC personnel. Details on grid-connected options still need to be worked out. In any event, qualified electrical contractors likely will be involved if they move early enough to be included in the GE marketing plans. Eric Gricus is cofounder of Fuelcellstore.com, an e-commerce company whose objective is to integrate and advance the fuel cell industry by bringing product component manufacturers, fuel cell system integrators, and consumers together. He wrote, “The role of electrical contractors will be vital in the release of residential fuel cell technology. This will depend on the diffusion of the technology in geographical areas and on who takes the initiative to install these systems, whether it is private citizens or the electric utility. “One area that many electricians might want to familiarize themselves with is the installing, repair, and maintenance of the switchgear that will be used to operate the fuel cell in a grid-independent or grid-parallel mode. As far as fuel cell repair and maintenance go, that is an entirely different question, and many electricians and other appliance service providers might want to begin learning all that they can about the maintenance and repair of fuel cell units in preparation for the future.” Brian Wierenga, manager of distributed generation support for Energy Coopportunity (ECO), made similar suggestions. ECO (www.energycoopportunity.org), a cooperative comprised of some 250 rural electric cooperatives, has served as a distributor for H Power fuel cells. ECO has installed six fuel cells, including one for the Delta-Montrose Electric Association. Allan Casanova, director of business development and administration at Siemens-Westinghouse Power Corp., reports that his company plans to have stationary fuel cells ready for commercial markets in 2004. He observes, “Electrical contractors are going to play an important role in installing as well as furnishing these products to a wide variety of customers. We plan to work with a variety of specifying influences to assure that our fuel cells are the preferred solution for power quality and remote power applications. The electrical contractor will have to work closely with the electrical utility as well as the manufacturer. It will be up to Siemens-Westinghouse to educate the electrical contractors on our products. We will sell through distributors/packagers as well, and these folks deal with electrical contractors.” He concluded by saying that Siemens-Westinghouse has emphasized fuel cell demonstrations within the utility industry but will begin working with the electrical contracting industry in the “not too distant” future. Herb Healy, program manager of International Fuel Cells for ONSI Corporation’s Engineering and Sales Support Division, says his company provides installation training as part of an overall course on power plant servicing. For contractors to be successful in the fuel cell marketplace, Healy emphasizes that they need to be prepared to do the interfacing of fuel cells with the grid. He remarked, “It would be beneficial for electrical contractors to stay abreast of the IEEE work on setting national level codes and standards. The IEEE code being developed is P1547 and exists in draft form now. An ANSI code for stationary fuel cell power plants already exists (ANSI Z21.83). Contractors need to be aware of these and all other standards and should stay abreast of the developing technology.” Jeff Masters, an electrical engineer with eight years of project management experience with an industrial electrical contractor, wrote, “Electric cooperatives, propane suppliers, natural gas suppliers, and electric utilities will be the driving force in mass-distributed generation. Smart electrical contractors will align themselves with one of these groups to be in position to do installation and service for residential and small commercial fuel cell systems. Here is the place for an electrical contractor: It is in rewiring and installing necessary switchgear and control components to allow an onsite generator to be used for 1) emergency power (as it is now); 2) peak shaving, onsite; and 3) connection to the local power grid.” Paul Bony, manager of marketing and customer service at Delta-Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado, noted that the electrical contractor’s role will be to do the make-ready work—the wiring. The contractor must be familiar not only with the technology but also with code compliance: How is the fuel cell to be connected to the panel? Is it a quick connection, like hooking up an a/c unit or a mobile home in a trailer park, or not? “What is that last connection; i.e., what will it look like? Electrical contractors will need to develop the ability to install or make ready the final interface both for stand alone and grid-connected fuel cell installations.” Eric Simkins, vice president of FuelCell Energy, agrees, and said that the most important thing is to know the interconnection standards. He mentions, in addition to the agencies working on codes noted in Part I that the NFPA has just recently put their standards on their Web site. He likened trains of the last century, which ran on separate-size, non-interchangeable tracks, to fuel cells by explaining, “Every situation with a fuel cell is different. The electrical contractor needs to know how to disconnect fuel cells quickly so that some lineman doesn’t get harmed.” (See www.fce.com for more information.) Simkins advises electrical contractors to perceive the situation in thirds: the fuel cell itself is one third (a black box with fuel going in and heat and electricity coming out), but the remaining two thirds, which involve knowledge of the balance of the plant, are of most concern to the contractor. In other words, knowing the basic technology of the fuel cell is important, but the connections with the rest of the equipment are much more important. Finally, his last comment echoes the previously mentioned work at South County Hospital in Rhode Island: Strategic relationships are important because most of the fuel cell manufacturers are small and often act more as collaborators than competitors. A follow-up with ESCOs In the June 2000 issue of EC magazine, we interviewed several ESCOs about their relationships with electrical contractors. As a follow-up, we have gleaned the following information in regard to ESCOs and fuel cells: Michael Hastings, senior engineer at Combined Energies in Augusta, Me., noted that his company has explored options using fuel cells, but equipment costs make the venture difficult at present. However, Reliant Energy recently signed a licensing agreement with Texas A&M University, which granted the company exclusive rights to develop and market important improvements in PEM fuel cell technology. Also in Texas, Sempra Energy Corporate Communications Manager Denise King sent the following information: SoCalGas, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, has a long history with fuel cells, more than 30 years’ involvement. SoCalGas installed the first commercially available fuel cell at the South Coast Air Quality Management District in April 1992. Other ONSI 200 kW phosphoric acid units are currently operating at the Hyatt Hotel in Irvine, the Santa Barbara jail, and at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Riverside. SoCalGas has also invested in Plug Power and will site several precommercial residential fuel cells late this year and early 2001. So, wise contractors will work on partnering with ESCOs if they want a piece of this action. The opportunity is here and growing fuel cells and electrical contractors together provide many exciting possibilities. While the market may take years to reach full potential, the sooner electrical contractors become knowledgeable about fuel cells, the greater their profits are likely to be. The quickly developing technology and increasing demand will ensure a drop in fuel cell costs over the next few years that, in turn, will increase demand even more. Relationships—building and sustaining relationships—is the underlying theme that runs through the success stories above. TAGLIAFERRE, is proprietor of the C-E-C Group in Springfield, Va. He can be reached at (703) 321-9268, or by e-mail at email@example.com. GREENWOOD has been a lecturer with the University of Maine’s Department of Sociology for 13 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (207) 581-2394.