Fuel Cells to Help Power Grids?

ByPaul Eng

Aug. 20, 2003 -- When the power grid crashed in New York and other cities across an eight-state region and in Canada last Thursday, not everyone was left in the dark. In fact, at least one building wasn't even on the grid to begin with.

While other buildings that house vital services — hospitals, local government emergency centers, radio and television stations — remained functional during the blackout thanks only to backup power generators, one New York City Police precinct in Manhattan wasn't even fazed by the sudden electrical disruption.

"We weren't affected by the blackout at all," says Dave Giordano, a community affairs officer at the Central Park Precinct in Manhattan. "We were still shining."

The secret to staying powered up throughout the blackout? For the past four years, the precinct has been generating its own power with a clean-energy fuel cell.

From Grid to Cell

Fuel cells, which use the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water, have recently received much attention as alternative power sources for both cars and portable electronics.

But experts say fuel cell power generators are also getting renewed attention from power companies as potential tools to buttress the nation's aging and vulnerable power grids.

"As we became aware, the power grid is at limits because it's fairly old and there have been no significant investments in upgrading it, even though there are increases in demands for electricity," says Reinhard Radermacher, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland.

One potential solution in which fuel cells could become central, say experts such as Radermacher, would be in an old idea called "cogeneration" or "distributed generation." Cogeneration calls for installing smaller power generators closer to where the demands for electricity are — such as within growing urban centers or even inside individual homes.

Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research for Allied Business Intelligence in Oyster Bay, N.Y., says the idea makes sense — especially in light of the problems with the large regional power grids that span the nation.

"If you can put more distributed generation products in high demand regions — such as New York — when something [like a blackout] happens, the hundreds of companies in those high-rise buildings and areas would at least have power," he says.

Clean Power, Hot Water

Analysts such as Ozbeck say that fuel cells, like the one installed in NYPD's Central Park Precinct, offer many advantages.

For example, since fuel cells have few moving parts, they are much quieter than conventional power generators like diesel engines or gas turbine engines.

Also, for hydrogen fuel, fuel cell systems can tap existing natural gas lines that cover nearly 80 percent to 90 percent of the country. And since the byproducts of such fuel systems is just heat, water and some carbon dioxide, they are less polluting than other generators.

"Fuel cells are a very good way of getting a more distributed power generation system up," says Ozbeck. "They are much more environmentally friendly and could even provide heat and hot water to regions as well as reduce the vulnerability of large outages."

Power to the People

Guy Sliker, an engineer with the New York Power Authority, agrees distributed generation schemes do have a place within the larger power grid scheme.

"We do see distributed generators helping in times of peak power demands," notes Sliker. "For example, if a facility demands 500 kilowatts of power, but they have a 200 kilowatt fuel cell on site, it means they're only drawing 300 kilowatts from the grid. That really helps reduce demands on the grid."

And in some cases, such as the Central Park police station, fuel cells are the only viable means of getting power to where it was needed.

Since the precinct is located in the middle of Central Park, Sliker says it would have cost the city over $1.2 million to run a power line from Fifth Avenue to the station house. But by installing a fuel cell that could use the precinct's existing natural gas line, the cost to the city was kept to about $800,000.

And Sliker says the company will continue to experiment with distributing more fuel cells within the New York region. Over the next few years, the company plans to install eight more fuel cells at waste water treatment plants. Those fuel cells will tap the hydrogen from waste gas produced by processing liquid sewage and in turn provide the plants with electricity.

Still Expensive Experiments

Still, analysts like Ozbeck believe it will be still quite a while — if ever — before fuel cells become commonplace in the nation's power grid system. For now, for instance, fuel cells are still much more expensive than other conventional power generation systems.

"Fuel cells still cost around $1,500 to $3,000 per kilowatt of energy — about two or three factors more expensive than conventional means," says Ozbeck. "And to provide enough power for 1,000 homes would require about one megawatt. That's pretty expensive."

Ozbeck blames the high costs on the still experimental nature and limited production of fuel cells. But he suspects renewed interest in these systems — sparked by the demands for solutions to preventing power blackouts — will help produce more fuel cells, which should eventually drive down costs.

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