State of industrial fuel cell technology, present and future

Industrial fuel cell use is viable for industrial electricity and steam production, nearly eliminating nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Growth potential is larger than expected, according to a Control Engineering interview. Variable frequency drives are helping improve energy efficiency of fuel cell plants.


A steady source: FuelCell Energy finds its new VFD solution remarkably reliable—enabling its plants to supply continuous power with minimal downtime. Courtesy: Rockwell AutomationFuelCell Energy Inc. is among the early leaders in the promising new energy generation sector of fuel cells. The Danbury, Conn.-based company manufactures, installs, operates, and services stationary fuel cell power plants. To date, FuelCell Energy plants have generated more than 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of clean electricity, equivalent to powering more than 135,000 average-size U.S. homes for one year.

Control Engineering and Plant Engineering contributing content specialist Sidney Hill recently conducted an email interview with Michael Lisowski, FuelCell Energy’s vice president of supply chain.

The interview covered the overall potential of fuel cell technology as a mainstream source of power, particularly in the industrial sector; FuelCell Energy’s use of Rockwell Automation variable frequency drives in its power plant design; and related subjects. 

CE and PE: Briefly describe the advantages of fuel-cell power plants as compared with traditional energy-generation facilities. Specifically, I’d like to know how fuel cell plants improve your customers’ ability to save money on energy costs while also helping protect the environment.

Michael Lisowski is vice president of supply chain for FuelCell Energy, a company that manufactures, installs, operates, and services stationary fuel cell power plants that have generated enough power for more than 135,000 average-size U.S. homes for one

Lisowski: Fuel cell power plants generate power and heat in a highly efficient and environmentally friendly manner at or near the point of use. This distributed power generation enhances power reliability and energy security as reliance on the electric transmission and distribution grid is reduced or even eliminated.

Fuel cell installations are economical as customers benefit from the high electrical efficiency that reduces fuel costs as well as combined heat and power (CHP) capabilities. CHP applications generate both electricity and heat from the same unit of fuel. The high-quality heat can be used for facility heating, heating water, making steam, or for absorption chilling.

Ultra-clean and efficient fuel cells support sustainability goals due to the virtual absence of pollutants from the fuel cell power generation process. Fuel cells generate power using an electrochemical process, and since there is no combustion, the fuel cell power generation process almost completely eliminates the emission of nitrogen oxide (NOx) that produces smog or particulate matter (PM10) that can contribute to asthma.

Implementing distributed generation that reduces reliance on the electric grid improves power reliability and enhances energy security. Permitting, siting, and maintaining the electrical transmission grid can be costly, and expanding the electric grid in populated areas can be challenging. On-site customers and electric utilities can minimize or avoid these issues by utilizing distributed fuel cell power generation. 

CE and PE: How many plants do you currently have operating around the globe, and how much energy are those plants producing? 

Lisowski: We have installations and orders from nine countries on three continents. Our installed based totals more than 80 fuel cell power plants operating at more than 50 sites. Since the commercialization of our technology, our power plants have generated more than 1.6 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of ultra-clean power, which is adequate to power approximately 145,000 average size U.S. homes for one year. 

CE and PE: What is the current growth rate of the fuel cell market? Do you expect fuel cell plants to become mainstream sources of energy for industrial users? If so, what sort of timetable are we looking at for reaching that point? 

Lisowski: There is growing recognition that ultra-clean and efficient fuel cell power plants address many of the power generation challenges facing the globe today, including the need for highly efficient continuous power that is generated in an environmentally friendly manner and that can be located in populated areas.

Our megawatt-class power plants are scalable and can meet power generation needs for on-site customers with our standard 1.4 MW or 2.8 MW power plants at industrial, commercial, and government applications or multi-megawatt fuel cell parks to support the electric grid. We are currently building a 14.9 MW fuel cell park in Connecticut with the power being sold to an electric utility, and our South Korean partner is currently building a 59 MW fuel cell park in South Korea to support the electric grid.

Due to the virtual lack of pollutants, quiet and vibration-free operating profile, and relatively modest space requirements, our power plants are easy to site in populated areas. Continuous baseload power that is environmentally friendly and easy to site is a benefit for both on-site customers as well as electric utilities looking to incrementally add power generation throughout their service network.

We estimate the market for clean distributed baseload generation in excess of $12 billion in the developed markets where we operate and the market is growing. We have seen an estimate by an independent research firm that is about 40% higher than our estimate. 

CE and PE: The project with Rockwell Automation involved developing a better way to convert dc power to ac power. How does that differ from your previous power conversion solution? 

Lisowski: As FuelCell Energy grows and evolves, we felt that Rockwell offered the best total solutions package for our needs and those of our customers today and in the future. Commitment to the product line, technology and product attributes, global presence, and extensive service network are all important factors for FuelCell Energy to partner with Rockwell.

Power Flow: This is the one-line diagram for FuelCell Energy’s 1.5 MW power plant. Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

We have been using these standard variable frequency drives for many years. As our power plants evolved and reached a stable design configuration and our installed base grew, it was time for both companies to jointly develop a power conversion system design. The solution is the culmination of diverse experience of both companies working in somewhat different industries, coming together with the common goal to release the best product possible. The dc to ac power conversion system used to convert fuel cell power is built around a standard Rockwell variable frequency drive. This is surrounded by additional support components that improve the overall robustness and enable it to interact with the electrical utility grid and provide high-quality ac power within the various international, national, and local guidelines. Liquid-cooled drives with exceptional performance, efficiency, and reliability are now the core of the power conversion solution for FuelCell Energy power plants. Our customers benefit from a high-quality and reliable product that is supported by extensive resources, with a high level of support and commitment, depth of knowledge, and an overall level of expertise. For example, FuelCell Energy is growing in Europe and Rockwell assisted with the development of our first CE compliant inverter for the European marketplace, and we expect their strong European presence will be beneficial as we grow in Europe. 

CE and PE: After resolving your power conversion issue, were there other benefits, such as helping to reduce your engineering or production costs or product time to market? Do you have any related metrics?

Lisowski: FuelCell Energy had been in continual development of new production-level fuel cell designs for more than 15 years. There were countless lessons learned from early designs and many improvements from one design to the next.

With each redesign we also scaled-up our core product to produce greater electrical output. This resulted in a requirement for a new power conversion system design on a yearly basis for several years. Each subsequent design led to new challenges, expanding our base of experience. 

By taking every lesson learned and beginning with a blank sheet of paper, we set off to create a design to be our standard. Rockwell assembled a team with engineering, production, testing, and support, resulting in streamlined design and reduced parts count by a substantial margin. 

The size of the power conversion unit was reduced to give us a very high power density and decrease the overall plant size. The liquid cooling increased efficiency and reduced noise.

The final design’s scalable and modular architecture allowed us to use a single production design building block to power two models of fuel cell power plant and be built into plants from 1 MW up to multi- megawatts with the same hardware. This reduces the cost to our customers without sacrificing performance or reliability. 

This is an online extra to a recent CFE Media supplement, Industrial Energy Management. Read more about from the supplement and, specifically, about fuel cells in "Driving a new generation of power plants," linked below.

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