Erik Robie, UTC Power’s Regional Manager of Sales, would most likely prefer I downplay the ‘miracle’ tone of this article, but that’s not possible. He played a pivotal role in the largest installation of a residential fuel cell in the world, and that will have a huge impact on clean energy production. Sorry, Erik, but that’s big news.
It’s not every day I get to chat with hotshot engineering types, so I took advantage of the opportunity when Robie returned my call. He had just stepped off a plane in San Francisco and had an authentic quality about him that made me like him immediately. But frankly, what I really wanted to know was how to sell a power system worth over a million dollars to a very savvy developer. Did I mention this application in commercial residential use had never been tried before?
For background, installing fuel cell power in 360 State Street – a mixed-use development in New Haven, Connecticut, with 500 residential apartments - didn’t happen overnight. However, it may forever enshrine the developer, Bruce Becker, and UTC Power’s Erik Robie in that land called, “Darn, why didn’t we think of that?”
Certainly the development’s project has no competition in New Haven or anywhere else. The mixed-use development has been lauded by government officials, sustainability advocates and the broader community. Green building people will be drooling over 360 State - which is in pursuit of a LEED Platinum certification under USGBC’s pilot neighborhood development program – for some time to come. To give you an idea, 360 has so many smart growth and energy efficiencies, their media people sent me the project’s LEED score card for reference.
Most existing building stock is old in New Haven, which has an historically low 1% vacancy factor for multifamily. Within the eco-delirium surrounding this project an excerpt from the developer’s press release actually seems somewhat humble:
“With its break-through utilization of fuel cell power and range of efficiency measures, 360 State has become a new green building model not only for Connecticut, but also for the multifamily housing world.”
Becker is not exaggerating even a tiny bit, as the 400 kW fuel cell power source located on-site is an innovative and exciting application of clean energy technology within a large-scale multifamily development and certainly has been ground-breaking.
GLL: Thanks, Erik, for taking the time to talk with us. Can we start with how and when the 360 State Street project first got started?
Today’s cost of the fuel cell system is expensive when compared to the other conventional technologies - more than a million dollars for large systems like the 400 kW fuel cell installed in 360 State Street – but incentives and grants can cut up to half the cost. The state and federal incentives that subsidize clean energy production are critical to market acceptance. Many emerging industries are given government assistance and this practice is not without precedence. In fact, it is interesting to note that fossil fuels are still subsized even today. In 2008 the global subsidy for fossil fuels was $557 billion, the last year for which figures are available. This is an excerpt from the International Energy Agency’s statement on these subsidies:
“The IEA analysis has revealed that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 bn [billion] in 2008. This represents a big increase from $342 bn in 2007. Fluctuations in world prices, domestic pricing policy changes, and shifts in demand can all be responsible for year-to-year differences in subsidy estimates. Since 2008, a number of countries – including China, Russia, India and Indonesia – have made notable reforms to bring their domestic energy prices in line with world prices. These efforts are expected to contribute to a reduction in the cost of energy subsidies to these countries in 2009.”
In the full announcement, the IEA recommended a responsible phasing out of these subsidies in favor of clean, efficient energy subsidies. GreenLandlady seconds that recommendation.
- The fuel processor reforms the fuel (natural gas) to hydrogen gas
- The hydrogen gas feeds the fuel cell stack
- Hydrogen gas and air are combined in a ‘magical’ electrochemical process
- The process produces direct current (DC) power, pure water and heat
- The byproduct water is used in the power plant operation
- The DC power produced is conditioned to provide high quality alternating current (AC) power output
- The usable heat is then redirected to create hot water, space heating, air conditioning and cooling
Fuel cells also operate without combustion making energy production virtually pollution free. Although the cells use natural gas, because of the system’s high efficiency, they can extract a lot of energy from a small amount of fuel and produce a lot of electricity. Although this is ground-breaking usage in multifamily, the total system efficiency of this kind of electricity production - including the residual thermal energy produced which gets used for space heating/cooling/conditioning, heating water and heating pools - makes it a perfect match for residential use. (See UTC Power’s site for the entire technical explanation of how fuel cells work.)
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