Renewable Energy: Fuel Cells For Facilities

By Anne Cosgrove
Published in the July 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Fuel cells comprise a family of technologies that uses an electrochemical reaction (rather than combustion) to create energy. When hydrogen and oxygen are combined in a fuel cell, water and electricity are produced, with resulting air polluting emissions at close to zero.

In its “2010 Industry Overview” report, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council (USFCC) stated that a fuel cell power plant running on natural gas may create less than one ounce of pollution per 1,000 kilowatt (kW) hours of electricity (as compared to 25 pounds of pollutants from conventional combustion systems). Nitrogen oxide emissions, for instance, are 97% lower than those from a conventional coal fired power plant.fuel cells renewable energy Sierra Brewing facility management

Heightened efficiency is another way fuel cells enable facility managers (fms) to reduce environmental impact. The USFCC states that high temperature fuel cells deliver at least 47% net electrical efficiency; that figure rises to 80% and higher when waste heat is captured for further use.

There are five primary types of fuel cells, which are differentiated by the type of electrolyte they use. The specific characteristics of each—such as operating temperature and type of fuel consumed—may make one a better fit for some applications than others. For a facility’s power needs, the four fuel cell types most often used are: Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell, Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cell, Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC), and Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC). These technologies can be used by facilities for both backup and primary power needs (continuous or not).

Says Robert Wichert, technical director for the USFCC, “It is certainly possible to meet all the electricity needs of a building with a fuel cell power plant, but most organizations choose not to for several reasons. First, maintaining a utility company as backup makes the system more reliable. Secondly, a utility normally doesn’t want fuel cell power ‘exported’ onto its system without provisions. Thirdly, these systems operate best when run steadily at or near their rated output.”

Fuel cells are often used to power building systems that run 24 hours a day (e.g., data servers and security systems). Further, facilities that run 24/7 as a whole (e.g., police stations, healthcare facilities, and even casinos) may benefit from continuous fuel cell power.

While continuously operating building systems are a good fit, fuel cell technology is also used to power all building systems, even those that are turned on and off regularly. Says Wichert, “There are fuel cell systems that can start up and shut down with the building, and these might run on natural gas or hydrogen gas. Or, if waste gas is available, this type of system can be very economical.” An example of waste gas being used is at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in Chico, CA, where a fuel cell installation runs on methane emissions from the company’s brewing process.

Still, some fuel cells provide only backup power, and the most common fuel for systems in this application is hydrogen.

In terms of financing options, fuel cells are on par with other alternative energy sources like wind and solar. On the federal level, there is currently a tax credit for up to $3,000 per kilowatt of installed capacity or 30% of the total cost, whichever is lower.

Opportunities can also be found closer to home. Says Wichert, “California has a self generation incentive program that pays a premium for on-site generation such as that from fuel cells. It pays up to $2,500 per kW of installed capacity and even more if renewable fuels like anaerobic digester gas are used. Other states where this might come into play include Connecticut, Ohio, and New York. In any case, fms should contact their state energy office to find out if there are incentives that apply.”

In 1839, Sir William Robert Grove of Britain discovered fuel cell technology. NASA later used fuel cells in moon missions. Today, fms may discover these systems will work for them.

Research for this article included information from the U.S. Fuel Cell Council (

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