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Asheville Citizen-Times

The Stationary Fuel Cell and Distributed Energy Solution

Author: Grant Millin | Web Link

January 1, 2007

The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund's "Project 150" effort to develop 150 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy has produced a bid from a fuel cell company, FuelCell Energy, to fulfill all 150 MW. Fuel cell power plants generate electricity electrochemically--without combustion--so they significantly reduce emissions. The first of these plants could be online by 2009 in Connecticut, the same year the new Buncombe County petroleum combustion plant was scheduled to open here in Western North Carolina.

Fuel cell plants ranging from 2 to 30 MW with near zero emissions throughout WNC provide a climate change technology alternative to just burning off fossil and bio fuels, and cover the low solar and wind yields in our region and what batteries can't do. Other efforts closer to users, of course including efficiency measures, can all combine for a thought-out energy plan for our region; no doubt a model for North Carolina's future potential and well-being.

Although now canceled for the sake of Smart Grid, at the time some environmental groups were apparently surprised that the $72 million Ultra Low Sulfur Oil (ULSO) power plant was on its way to the old Buncombe County landfill in Woodfin, NC. This 130 MW plant represents our unmet energy efficiency and clean energy generation planning here in North Carolina, and so the plant proposal is not surprising. For the sake of scale, the Progress Energy Vanderbilt substation on Rankin Avenue in Asheville, NC and its 32.2 MW of coal-fired electricity only powers up Central Asheville. The Woodfin ULSO plant will use an estimated 2.5 and 3.5 million gallons of the petroleum product annually [Progress Energy]. That's a major increase to our regional contribution to petroleum consumption. These dirtier, more wasteful centralized plants can reappear unless a comprehensive distributed energy systems approach is understood and executed.

We are likely to end up with the ULSO plant because North Carolina is very far behind in comparison to other state clean energy programs. What we can hope for is turning off older, less efficient coal burning plants.

The WNC Regional Air Quality Agency is presently unable to verify the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) the Woodfin plant will produce and we will not have that data for several months. CO2 is the major greenhouse gas (GHG) contributor to global climate change. CO2 mostly comes from power plants, and totally escape EPA regulation. Before the Buncombe County commissioners commit this community to more of these unsustainable energy systems they ought to be able to tell us the truth about the alternatives, however initially expensive those alternatives are right now.

More cheap energy? Great tax revenue? Really? It all begs questions and deeper answers, especially when there really are viable, albeit more expensive, alternatives. A more polluting centralized plant is now more expensive than a series of smaller fuel cell plants--combined with other cleaner, more efficient systems like Combined Heat & Power (CHP) plants--due to global climate change and dwindling conventional energy supplies.

We clearly need to address our energy usage through efficiency: LED (light emitting diode), compact florescent lighting (CFL) and LEED standards [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, ]. Asheville is making progress in the area of energy conservation, but a recent city council meeting on the subject indicated many decision makers are unaware of the conditions or nomenclature surrounding the complex area of energy policy and infrastructure choice. However, environmental groups propose that only 20 -- 40% of our stationary energy needs can be met through efficiency. For example the Woodfin plant is reduced in size from 130 to 100 -- 70 MW, but the relatively high emissions and petroleum use don't go away. Given growing demand we still need more energy production, and we need to both replace obsolete generators, North Carolina's total dependency on energy imports, and reduce the number of new fossil and nuclear plants. That's a huge project, but one that could be profitable and encourage real innovation and competition.

The good news is that a new report to the NC Utilities Commission refutes claims that cleaner alternatives to systems like the Woodfin petroleum plant are invalid. Unfortunately not even 2% of our state supply is from renewables. However, we can achieve more though renewable portfolio standards ["Report: State could go more green", Raleigh News & Observer, 12/14/06]. Sadly, solar was discounted as being "too expensive". Fuel cells and other systems are barely recognized. It's unfortunate North Carolina decided to delay RPS policy as we lost momentum in an important area of competitive advantage.

There's a difference between renewable energy and zero emission energy as there's a difference between energy independence and addressing global warming. Viewing both efficiency and higher quality as part of manufacturing design, as seen in William McDonough's book "Cradle to Cradle", can mean international competitive advantage versus loss. Energy modernization systems will increasingly become key to global competitive advantage. It's best that we understand and plan to address these distinct concepts collectively and organize the necessary scale of change resources now.

An example of the twists and turns of energy technicalities is NC Green Power. Since most NC Green Power generation goes to the grid, at least 50% will be lost in conventional production methods and transmission resistance. The Woodfin ULSO plant will suffer the same kind of transmission waste factor, whether its petroleum or biodiesel that's used. NC Green Power is not a modern clean energy fund as equipment is not covered and energy is merely delivered to existing utilities.

We need policies establishing terms for true competition and robust energy modernization if North Carolina is expected to compete in the 21st century. We need to grasp these seemingly divergent concepts that actually can come together for a greater and more reliable basis of energization our society so depends upon.

The Distributed Energy Option

Distributed energy (DE) and all other efficiency measures work together to reduce the number of old and new centralized nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, and resulting waste and toxins. DE can be thought of as diesel generators of the past, but better as a new energy policy direction that combines efficiency and cleaner generation. Some justifications for distributed energy include potential lower cost, higher service reliability, high power quality, increased energy efficiency, and energy independence. All reasons we might want to consider distributed energy resources. DE systems like fuel cells, microturbines, wind, combined heat & power (CHP), micro hydrogen production, photovoltaic and solar mirrors--and most importantly, integrated systems of all these technologies combined in chains--are located close to users, thereby reducing waste.

DER technology is not necessarily always zero emission, but does present new ways of producing, and possibly more importantly, owning, energy resources. In terms of reliability, energy production closer to users can mean uninterruptible supply, if done properly. As winter approaches we see how vulnerable our transmission lines are and that moving clean, quite power generation in close makes sense. Of course, that only applies to us if we ever have real winters in North Carolina again.

The California Energy Commission's Distributed Generation Resources Guide [ ] represents one component of a model energy dissent program operating successfully in advanced industrial society. California cities are canceling contracts with coal-fired plants. That's because California took a gamble on advanced energy policy years ago and they will grab the benefits first.

One of the easiest ways to conceptualize the effect of a robust national DE plan is to watch Greenpeace UK's short film "What are we waiting for?" [ ]. Congress began studying DE following major blackouts earlier this decade. More recently, the international market analysis firm Frost & Sullivan noted DE technologies show "high potential" in answering our energy needs.

High efficiency fuel cells work

Solar and wind alone are incomplete stationary energy solutions. Advanced societies require constant energy production, 24/7/365. The minimum and peak demand of a society must be met despite weather conditions affecting solar and wind, though those systems can help reduce any kind of fuel consumption. Meeting this baseload is what big energy companies do.

Stationary fuel cells are consistently cited as being central to powering society towards zero emissions and produce power at night and without consideration to weather.

Solar-fuel cell distributed energy could reduce Southern California's ozone concentrations by as much as six parts per billion and peak particulate matter by up to three micrograms per cubic meter compared to current power plant technology [National Fuel Cell Research Center]. These are actually small percentages, but the point is emissions are reversed, even when considering demand growth. Stationary and mobile fuel cells can cut CO2 emissions in half by 2050 [IEA/DOE]. Biofuels in combustion engines only do still pollute.

In the winter of 2006, a 680,000-square-foot US Postal Service sorting facility in San Francisco began powering up partially with a hybrid solar-fuel cell power plant that cut power purchases by 46%. The site's heating requirements were reduced by 69%. Those modernization efforts, and improvements to a smaller USPS facility in San Francisco, reduced local electric utility emissions by about 6,600 tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of planting about 1,860 acres of trees [Chevron Energy Solutions].

Fuel cells are usually powered mainly by natural gas, they're expensive, they have a footprint, but they are also a multifuel technology that can use clean hydrogen equally from biomass byproduct and as well as water. Given 24/7 energy production choices, fuel cells work. Fuel cells are increasingly using less expensive materials and energy efficient hydrogen production methods are much, much closer than critics realize: and thus building the blocks for zero/near zero emission transportation and stationary power systems. One stationary fuel cell company recently gained 20% efficiency on their medium fuel cells suitable for powering residential communities, factories, stores, hotels, hospitals and municipal buildings. Individually powering these large energy users is an ideal way to cut down the need for power plants.

Hybrid fuel cell-microturbine systems, with solar and wind power providing supplemental power, and water electrolysis for hydrogen production, located in various residential, commercial, and municipal environments, represent solid baseload solutions and clean energy for transportation. The technology exists now, even the hydrogen vehicles can be pushed out faster as there are both internal combustion engine (ICE) and fuel cell vehicles headed towards mass production, even buses and trains. We can use available and reasonable amounts of biofuel, and certainly our waste by-products, but also desalinated water turned into hydrogen, for baseload and transportation fuels. It's true that right now it's easier and cheaper to deliver one gallon of biofuel than one kilogram of hydrogen, but people will be surprised by recent innovations on the hydrogen front. But it's the stationary power factor, given its role in global climate change, we can work out now. We should, as plug-in hybrid vehicles will increase electricity demand by 30-40% [Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]. The only question now is whether or not we think it's worth it to reduce the need for fossil fuel and nuclear systems.

Seek accountability

If North Carolina had a robust distributed energy program like California's, manufacturing and installing these technologies on a national and global scale would help us create more businesses and high paying jobs. What North Carolina will find after our Climate Action Plan Advisory Group comes up with recommendations is that taking action means modernizing our energy and transportation systems in smart versus wasteful ways. Western North Carolina should organize itself to be an advanced energy demonstration area, as soon as possible. That will start another avenue towards replacing disappearing high wage/full employment jobs and add to the notion we are a high tech region. Competitive advantage will increase if the initiatives and ventures involved plan on exporting such technologies nationally and even globally. We will need training programs as well. There are many examples of states and federal programs that encourage such efforts. NC Green Power was just a start versus a total solution.

In September, a US House Committee on Government Reform hearing was titled "Climate change technology research: Do we need a 'Manhattan Project' for the environment?" We in fact have a national Climate Change Technology Program, its just unfunded and has no authority. Last October, the NY Times story "Budgets Falling in Race to Fight Global Warming", confirmed this lack of follow through at the national level. We need federal solutions like the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Act and the Strategic Energy Fund Act. State clean energy equipment and energy competition initiatives like those seen in California and Connecticut need to be assessed for national repetition, and for North Carolina. We can make progress as a state, but surprisingly even multinational corporations prefer a national solution to global climate change and energy modernization in order to better plan, trade, and seek competitive advantage [Pew Center on Global Climate Change]. Fighting global climate change and energy independence need to be synthesized efforts for competitive advantage and in order to maintain delicate ecosystems like ours here in the beautiful Blue RiDEe Mountains.

A pure biofuels world is unlikely and a nuclear one unwelcome. We can bet on carbon capture and storage (CCS) programs like FutureGen, or carbon trading, but distributed energy looks like a great way to reduce waste and GHG emissions, break energy production oligopolies, and change how energy is controlled. 'Smart grid' technologies are matching building efficiency control systems with source energy plant output through IT. There are a number of energy innovators in our region, but currently North Carolina as a whole is not competitive in terms of 21st century energy planning or market potential, despite hopeful signs. South Carolina, surprisingly, is well in advance of our state in the area of advanced energy.

Another traditional efficiency initiative might take off a few megawatts and tons of emissions in terms of the computations behind current new plant justification for coal and nuclear. What's needed are DER competitors that can organize a two-year plan to insert at least 50 megawatts into the local system starting with onsite power for our largest users. That would change the equation considerably, if the alternative arrives in time.

The energy solution is a set of tough decisions best made early rather than later. Whether it's local, state or federal politicians, or energy corporations, don't let them off the hook when it comes to energy solutions. Don't just ask for solar, wind, biowaste or biofuel energy sources separately. Ask for a clean energy fund, distributed energy, and real competition.


Grant Millin is president of The PublicGen Companies

Article appeared as "Renewable energy could pioneer a bright future for WNC", Asheville Citizen-Times, 1/07.

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