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Enhancing the Role of Fuel Cells for Northeast Grid Resiliency

northeast grid

Severe weather events over the last several years have demonstrated that America’s aging electrical infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to outages and other disruptions. Intense storms, such as 
Superstorm Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Irene (2011), debilitated sections of the eastern seaboard and left many communities without power for extended periods of time. The northeast grid, and those who depend on it, have been forced to seek new ways to avoid prolonged outages.

In addition to the overall physical damage caused by these storms, many communities, public services and companies are harmed by the loss of electrical power. Emergency services are harder to perform when the grid is down, including the rescue of the injured, or those trapped in high-rise buildings. Communications, including mobile phone service, is compromised. And businesses ranging from the local grocery to large-scale corporations lose money every minute they are without power. For this reason, back-up generators, typically diesel systems, are utilized to supplant lost grid power. However, this century-old technology suffers from issues of reliability, noxious emissions, and high noise levels.

Fuel cell technology is proving to be a viable and effective solution to grid reliability issues. Fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, not combustion, and when using hydrogen fuel, produce no harmful emissions. Because they contain few moving parts, they are both reliable and quiet. The Fuel Cell Industry offers a variety of highly resilient products using a number of different fueling models including those able to be fueled by packaged and bulk methanol and hydrogen. Some may be fueled through America’s vast underground natural gas lines, which are far less likely to be damaged by weather events than today’s electric utility grid.

Many utility companies are integrating large-scale fuel cell systems, up to tens of megawatts (MWs) in size, into the local power grid to generate ongoing and reliable power. Data centers are choosing fuel cells to ensure continuity of power for their business operations. Smaller back-up power units provide seamless power for cell phone towers and critical telecommunications equipment. Retailers, universities and other institutions are using fuel cells onsite, and in some communities, fuel cells provide power to emergency shelters and other essential services.

From the Caribbean to New England, fuel cell installations have proven to be effective during and after severe weather occurrences. These are documented in the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association’s recent white paper, Enhancing the Role of Fuel Cells for Northeast Grid Resiliency.

Today, several northeastern states offer programs to encourage the adoption of resilient fuel cell technology in both primary and back-up power capacities; further expansion of state-level programs would encourage wider deployment of this rugged and reliable technology. Fuel cells already power critical facilities – hospitals, police stations, telecommunications, wastewater treatment plants and, soon, microgrids – and can play an even larger role in helping the Northeast successfully ride out the next big storm. A combination of community and industry efforts must be united with the effective state policies.

As the U.S. Department of Energy noted in its December 2014 report, State of the States: Fuel Cells in America 2014, the common denominators for growing fuel cell industry success include:

  • Collaboration and coordination among the industry’s players (business, government, and academia);
  • Supportive government policies, created by the legislature and/or governor, which encourage the development and deployment of fuel cells;
  • Incentives for fuel cell-related businesses to move to the state and to grow and succeed;
  • Financial support (grants, loans, tax incentives) for end users to encourage fuel cell demonstrations and deployment; and
  • Availability of a fueling infrastructure. 

The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association applauds state efforts to enhance resiliency using fuel cells and encourages the expansion of programs and funding to assist vulnerable states in the reduction of the widespread impact of grid outages.

Photo Credit: New England Energy Resources/shutterstock

Morry Markowitz's picture

Thank Morry for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 19, 2015 12:28 am GMT

Morry, your claim

Fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, not combustion, and when using hydrogen fuel, produce no harmful emissions

is similar to the claim of EV manufacturers their vehicles produce “zero emissions”.

Alas, not in economics nor energy do we ever get something for nothing. If we store grid-mix electricity as hydrogen then recatalyze it we can assume a roundtrip energy efficiency of 35-50%, meaning up to 65% of our grid energy is wasted.

If we use hydrogen obtained from methane steam reforming, which has a thermodynamic efficiency of ~80%, and multiply that by the efficiency of an industrial PEM fuel cell (~50%), we’re still at a considerable environmental and economic disadvantage to direct CCGT gas generation.

Better to spend public money on strengthening the grid instead of incentivizing bandaids for the large businesses which would benefit from local fuel cell backup, while leaving residential customers in the dark.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 21, 2015 1:55 pm GMT

Several excellent points. Pointing to the “Hydrogen Economy” emissions of fuel cells under a presumed low-carbon / no-carbon source of hydrogen when the policy target in view is, as noted in the article:

“Today, several northeastern states offer programs to encourage the adoption of resilient fuel cell technology in both primary and back-up power capacities; further expansion of state-level programs would encourage wider deployment of this rugged and reliable technology.”

This is not a policy target that involves waiting until there is an established hydrogen economy with no-carbon / low-carbon hydrogen widely available, so the real energy source we are talking about here is methane powered fuel cells, and if we assume 50% fuel cell efficiency and 80% methane to hydrogen conversion efficiency, there is a net efficiency that is substantially lower than advanced NGCC.

Further, for the “always available” emergency back-up demands, while methane gas line breaks are less common than grid failures in the Northeastern US, availability of the methane gas distribution system cannot be presumed, so for “always available” back-up, in addition to the fuel cells we would require adequate methane storage, increasing the capital cost of the fuel cell system versus diesel back-up generators.

And as is clear from Catherine Wolfram’s piece on Grid Reliability, http://www.theenergycollective.com/catherinewolfram/2240161/us-investing-enough-electricity-grid-reliability, the high rate of outages in the Northeastern US is in large part a policy choice regarding how heavily we choose to invest in grid reliability, with 4hrs of average outages per year per customer in the US just over ten times the outages experienced in Germany, with an average of 23 minutes of outages per year per customer. Reduce the frequency of outages, and the operating cost advantage of running fuel cells on natural gas seem likely to be outweighed by the lower capital costs of traditional diesel back up generation.

Indeed, if we have sufficient grid resiliency to make outages sufficiently rare, we could well have enough first generation biodiesel capacity from waste cooking oils to sustainable power the highest priority always-available back-up power needs on a sustainable basis.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 22, 2015 3:05 am GMT

“...we could well have enough first generation biodiesel capacity…”

Biofuel to the rescue again!  The transition to sustainable energy simply will not work if we keep accepting solutions that have large gaps that can only be filled with fossil fuels or biofuel; humanity can never return to the energy consumption levels at which biofuel can supply a significant fraction.

In many of these gap cases that depend on a stored fuel for dispatchable power, ammonia fuel and H2 are technically viable sustainable options.  But the high cost for these sustainable fuels (relative to fossil fuel) means that we really must choose primary solutions that minimize the need for liquid fuel.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jun 22, 2015 4:40 am GMT

” The transition to sustainable energy simply will not work if we keep accepting solutions that have large gaps that can only be filled with fossil fuels or biofuel”

Setting the sweeping dismissal of all biofuels to one side … note that the empirical point here is that if we have sufficient grid resilience, then the total energy suppy required from fuel stored for back-up power is a small gap, not a large one: 24 minutes a year is roughly 0.005% of total annual US electricity supply.

Hence a fuel source that would be entirely overwhelmed by, say, attempting a plug and play replacement of the diesel wasted by our grossly energy inefficient long haul freight transport system would be quite appropriate as a fuel supply for the modest amount of back-up energy we ought to be requiring.

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