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Fuel Cell Power Plants Are Used in Diverse Ways Across the United States

U.S. fuel cell power plant capacity, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-860, Annual Electric Generator Report

At the end of 2016, the United States had 56 large-scale fuel cell generating units greater than 1 megawatt (MW), totaling 137 megawatts (MW) of net summer capacity. Most of this capacity (85%) has come online since 2013. Fuel cells collectively provided 810,000 megawatthours (MWh) of electricity in 2016, representing 0.02% of total U.S. electricity generation.

Fuel cell systems typically produce hydrogen gas from hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas using thermochemical processes such as steam reforming. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity and water. Although nearly 85% of fuel cell capacity in 2016 used natural gas, fuels such as landfill gas or biogas from the decomposition of sewage at wastewater treatment plants were also used, potentially allowing the generation from fuel cells to qualify for renewable portfolio standards in certain states.

Fuel cell power plants are sometimes used for backup power at small facilities such as hospitals. They can also be used to operate data centers for large private corporations that have committed to consuming 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.

Commercial and industrial sector fuel cell power plants are sometimes used in combined heat and power application, meaning they produce heat and steam in addition to electricity. Overall combined heat and power applications made up 26 MW of the 137 MW operating in 2016; the rest provided only electricity.

Fuel cell capacity factors in 2016 ranged significantly, reflecting a wide operating range for these fuel cells. Some were operated infrequently: 8 of the 50 plants in operation for all of 2016 had a capacity factor of 30% or lower, likely reflecting limited-use applications such as peak shaving or back-up capacity. Some were operated more frequently: about 25% of fuel cell generators had capacity factors exceeding 85%, likely reflecting primary power supply applications.

Fuel cells with combined heat and power applications typically had much lower capacity factors than those that delivered electricity only, with median capacity factors of 44% and 81%, respectively.

U.S. fuel cell power plant capacity factors, as explained in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-860, Annual Electric Generator Report, Form EIA-923, Monthly Power Plant Report

In 2016, 36% of total U.S. fuel cell capacity was in California, which has a number of incentives for distributed generators such as fuel cells. Fuel cell generating units in Connecticut accounted for 27% of U.S. 2016 fuel cell capacity, and plants in Delaware accounted for 22%. Both states allow fuel cells with nonrenewable fuel to meet requirements for renewable portfolio standards. The remaining fuel cell power plants are located in North Carolina and Utah.

Principal contributor: Fred Mayes

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2018 3:07 pm GMT

Fred, if an off-grid or backup system has access to natural gas, it makes little economic or environmental sense to install a hydrogen fuel cell power plant. As you note, hydrogen fuel cells have a wide range of efficiencies. You don’t include the off-site energy invested in steam-reforming methane feedstock to produce hydrogen fuel, which offsets another 30% of the chemical energy contained within.

Generators which burn natural gas, at 60-70% efficiency, offer clear advantages to hydrogen fuel cells by skipping steam reformation entirely.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Apr 24, 2018 9:47 pm GMT

Actually, Bob, all fuel cells ultimately run on hydrogen. Those that nominally run on natural gas simply incorporate internal steam reforming. Internal reforming can be efficient, as the waste heat from the fuel cell reaction supplies heat to the endothermic reforming reaction. It “amplifies” the production of hydrogen, boosting overall system efficiency.

Separate steam reforming does not (or need not) waste 30% of the chemical energy contained in natural gas. Depending on the process employed and the valuation of efficiency, reforming can be achieved with nearly 100% efficiency. That’s not ordinarily done, because with existing technology it costs more and natural gas is cheap. As I discussed in A New Look at the Hydrogen Economy, new technology may change that. The reason one might want to reform NG separately would be to enable the use of very cheap automotive class low temperature PEM fuel cells. They can achieve 60% efficiency, and their low capital cost makes it economical to use them at low duty cycles, as peaking units.

For operation at higher duty cycles, molten carbonate fuel cells running on natural gas probably do make more sense. That’s what most megawatt-class FC power plants currently employ. But FuelCell Energy is pushing its “TriGen” system that produces heat, power, and hydrogen. Essentially, it oversizes the internal steam reforming function relative to what the molten carbonate fuel cell consumes, making the excess hydrogen available for other uses. Toyota is building a large plant near the port of Long Beach. It will support its fleet of FC vehicles in the area, and will run on bio-methane from agricultural wastes.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 24, 2018 11:37 pm GMT

Roger, maybe I wasn’t clear – my question was why it wouldn’t be more energy-efficient and economical to skip fuel cells entirely and run a CCGT turbine, or industrial gas generator for backup applications:
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Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 25, 2018 5:50 am GMT

all fuel cells ultimately run on hydrogen. Those that nominally run on natural gas simply incorporate internal steam reforming. Internal reforming can be efficient, as the waste heat from the fuel cell reaction supplies heat to the endothermic reforming reaction.

This is grossly false.  SOFCs, MCFCs and DCFCs don’t even have to have hydrogen anywhere near them.  If your charge carriers are CO3– or O– ions, you have no need for hydrogen in the system, period.  You can convert O– and CO3– to CO2 and free electrons by reacting with CO.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Apr 25, 2018 7:49 pm GMT

SOFCs, MCFCs and DCFCs don’t even have to have hydrogen anywhere near them.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that at least in SOFCs and MCFCs that nominally run on natural gas, the anode reaction combines oxygen ions with hydrogen atoms at the surface of the anode, giving up electrons to the conductive anode. The water molecule then reacts with a methane molecule to form CO and hydrogen.

The CO could, as you say, react with an oxygen or carbonate ion at the anode. However for SOFCs and MCFCs running on natural gas, I believe reaction kinetics favor reacting with a water molecule to form CO2 and more hydrogen. In that case the whole chain essentially replicates the combined SMR and water gas shift reactions, but internally within the fuel cell. I’m not an electrochemist, though, and could be wrong about the water gas shift being kinematically favored over direct CO reaction at the anode.

For direct carbon FCs that use a consumable carbon anode in a molten carbonate electrolyte, you’re right; no hydrogen involved there. So my statement that all fuel cells ultimately run on hydrogen was incorrect. I should have said all fuel cells in common use.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Apr 26, 2018 1:31 am GMT

I’m pretty sure that at least in SOFCs and MCFCs that nominally run on natural gas, the anode reaction combines oxygen ions with hydrogen atoms at the surface of the anode, giving up electrons to the conductive anode. The water molecule then reacts with a methane molecule to form CO and hydrogen.

What will it take to make you realize that what you are claiming now and “ultimately run on hydrogen” are not the same?

If your fuel cell needs nothing more than oxygen or carbonate ions, hydrogen is ultimately irrelevant.  It can use it but doesn’t need it in the least.

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