Fuel Cells for Resilience | BCSE
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Fuel Cells for Resilience

Stationary fuel cell systems are uniquely addressing the vital need for resilience and supporting policy across the United States that includes microgrids, existing and new legislation in California to mitigate and manage wildfires, and expanding policy in the Northeast for clean, resilient energy that can be sited in space constrained areas. There are over 500 MW of fuel cell systems generating power and heat across the U.S. and these systems keep generating power and heat when the grid goes down. 

Resilience Features of Fuel Cell Systems

In the event of a grid outage or de-energization[1] event (Public Safety Power Shutoff[2] - when the grid is turned off to prevent a wildfire), fuel cells maintain continuous power to the site. A fuel cell system can smoothly transition from the grid to fully power the load during an outage, without interruption to the end user, and to seamlessly re-connect to the grid when its power is restored. Because fuel cell systems are generally sized for the base load at a site, they can provide full power but during these events they are preferred as backup power due to their long-duration (any length over 24 hours) backup generation.

In communities with constrained transmission, fuel cell systems can be sited to provide baseload power.  These communities can include disadvantaged or rural locations.  

Additionally, fuel cells displace traditional emergency backup generators that emit criteria air pollutants and GHG, including diesel generators. This feature is especially critical given that so many communities suffer from poor air quality and faces major challenges in achieving clean air for the many citizens that live and work within these areas, including in economically disadvantaged communities that are often disproportionately burdened by air pollution. By providing always-on, zero criteria pollutant emission power, fuel cells can increase adoption of intermittent renewable wind and solar resources.

How a Fuel Cell System Provides Long-Duration, Resilient Power

Fuel cells have a modular design allows the system to continue operating even while individual components are being repaired or replaced.  The time to build, uptime, and recovery time that are all faster than the electric utility grid network can achieve.  Fuel cell systems also operate with leading power density, producing the largest quantity of zero emissions electricity in proportion to their equipment footprint compared to any technology currently on the market. 

When paired with storage, wind, solar, demand response, or other technologies, fuel cell systems can serve as the foundation for microgrids that integrate numerous distributed energy resources and controls. Microgrids that use fuel cell systems as baseload power are able to immediately disconnect from the grid and island (operate autonomously) from the larger grid when conditions demand (e.g., grid outage).

The fuel cell installation inherently operates as an energy management system, with critical loads for backup power already identified and immediately followed when there is an outage.  Community microgrids anchored by fuel cell systems deliver long-duration generation for emergency service centers, telecommunications and critical services such as hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores. In fact, the City of Hartford installed a fuel cell-powered microgrid to provide continuous power to these facilities that are co-located on the same block.[3]

Maintaining Connection in the Face of Unpredictable Events

Fuel cell resiliency has been demonstrated during hundreds of real-world disaster and grid interruption events.  To wit, over 60 fuel cell systems maintained power to telecommunication sites during widespread outages caused by Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast and the Bahamas in 2012.[4]   Fuel cells have been installed on the utility side of the meter to ride through outages in Connecticut, Delaware, Long Island.  Millions of customers lost power in the four storms that buffeted the East Coast from March 2-22 in 2018, including those served by the electric grid in the vicinity of nine fuel cell microgrid sites.  Despite the combined 26 electric utility outages, all nine fuel cell microgrids maintained power throughout these events. Other fuel cell systems in the Northeast have powered critical communications and emergency shelters in the aftermath of these storms. Fuel cells have also supplied critical load power to a healthcare facility during triple-digit temperature heat waves that triggered outages for 57,000 customers in Southern California in 2018.

Additionally, fuel cells withstood the 6.0 magnitude Napa earthquake in 2014, the Sonoma fires in 2018 and the recent July 2019 Ridgecrest earthquakes, continuously providing power to customers and essential services. During the July 2019 blackout in New York and New Jersey, Home Depot stores across New York maintained power with fuel cell based microgrids.[5]  Whether an outage is natural or human-caused, fuel cells are today providing valuable resilience for communities, commercial and industrial energy consumers.

PHOTO CAPTIONS

Individual Photos, from top to bottom: a) Fuel Cell System at the Marcus Garvey Village Microgrid, Brooklyn, New York; b) Fuel Cell Powered Microgrid for Town of Woodbridge, Connecticut; and c) Fuel Cells Providing Long-Duration Backup Power after 2018 Sonoma, California Fire. Top banner photo (order: b,a,c).

REFERENCES

[1] https://www.cpuc.ca.gov/deenergization/

[2] https://www.pge.com/en_US/safety/emergency-preparedness/natural-disaster/wildfires/public-safety-power-shutoff-faq.page

[3] Watch video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=2gMv-Diaxow

[4] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53ab1feee4b0bef0179a1563/t/54e5e838e4b0072e73714e4b/1424353336299/Northeast-Resiliency-White-Paper-February-2015.pdf

[5] https://www.bloomenergy.com/blog/fuel-cell-powered-microgrids-keep-home-depot-stores-open-through-new-york-power-outages

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katrina Fritz is the Executive Director, California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative.