On 14th January California Air Resources Board (CARB) certified renewable hydrogen produced from biogas from wastewater treatment stations under its Low Carbon Fuel Standard. This could be the major step towards solving the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) fuelling infrastructure dilemma, in which there are currently not enough hydrogen fuelling stations and not enough cars to refuel at hydrogen stations, as well as expanding the market.
The CARB certification was based on the success of a three-year tri-generation fuel cell project by FuelCell Energy at the Orange County Sanitation District in Fountain Valley, California. The company very efficiently turned biogas coming off the facility into pure hydrogen for vehicles. CARB says that a vehicle using hydrogen from tri-generation is not only carbon free but also offsets other carbon emissions. It isn’t zero carbon but net-negative carbon. That is really good news for the renewable hydrogen market.
REM talked to Tony Leo and Kurt Goddard of FuelCell Energy to find out more.
Tell me about FuelCell and what it does
Tony: FuelCell Energy is a company that manufactures and sells a line of commercial power plant systems based on carbonate fuel cell technology. We’ve been a developer of electrochemical technology for about 40 years and we’ve done research on many different types of storage systems and power generation systems and started in the late 1990s, taking all of those technologies, carbonate fuel cells, and bringing them to commercial readiness. We shipped our first commercial power plant in 2003 and we like to call ourselves an innovative fuel cell company. We design the systems, we manufacture the fuel cells in our factory in Torrington, Connecticut, which is about an hour away from our headquarters in Denver, Connecticut. We service all the power plants and conduct turnkey installation of the power plant. Our largest power plant system is 2.8 MW in size and for a larger project than that people use multiple systems. The largest in the world so far is a 59 MW system.
What advantages do fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) or FCEVs have over other electric vehicles and how is the market for FCVs shaping up in the US at the moment?
All the systems we’ve been working on so far here at FuelCell Energy are for stationary power generation and that’s been our focus. We are interested in what other companies are doing as far as fuel cell vehicles, but that’s a different type of fuel cell. The fuel cells that we chose to focus on are fuel cells that use commonly available fuel. There are two that are used most often, one is natural gas and the other is renewable biogas for methane based fuels.
Most fuel cells including ours ultimately consume hydrogen, and there are electrodes to make power, and what we do with the carbonate fuel cell is that we’re able to engineer a system that takes a hydrocarbon fuel like natural gas or biogas and converts it to hydrogen right at the fuel cell electrodes. So when you convert methane to hydrogen you have to mix it with water and add heat. That’s typically done industrially by burning fuel and making steam. When we do an entire fuel cell stack we use water that’s produced by the fuel cell so we don’t consume water and we use heat that’s wasted in the fuel cell so we don’t have to add extra fuel. We end up making hydrogen very efficiently and then we use it very efficiently in the fuel cell, by converting the fuel to power electrochemically instead of mechanically we’re much more efficient.
That was the core of our idea for an efficient stationary power generation technology. During the last couple of years, we’ve observed the possible introduction of a new product is that since we produce hydrogen so efficiently inside our fuel cell stack, what if we made extra hydrogen and separated it out and provided it to either industrial users or people who want hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles. That was an interesting idea and if you look at the last few years there’s been a lot of increase in the methane and the fuel cell vehicle activity, Toyota has introduced a new car, just about everyone, with the exception of Nissan I think, has produced a new fuel cell vehicle and so it really looks like the fuel cell vehicles are going to take off.
When you look at the fuel cell that goes into a fuel cell vehicle, one difference with the fuel cells that we make is that they run at much lower temperature. That helps them with fast start and so forth, which is good for a vehicle, but they need very, very, pure hydrogen fuel. They can’t run on the methane fuel that we use for example. So, we know how to make hydrogen, they need fuel hydrogen, and there’s an emerging market of fuel cell vehicles. What we’re looking at is the possibility of taking our fuel cell equipment, putting it into a wastewater treatment plant and running the fuel cell on biogas at the wastewater treatment plant. That’s something we’ve done a lot of already. In the process, we can make some of this extra hydrogen, providing renewable hydrogen to the vehicles. One of the objections that people have to fuel cell vehicles is that the hydrogen they use is produced from natural gas, which means it’s not renewable. We can produce hydrogen from biogas that will be renewable and that will serve a need, making at least a third of their fuel renewable.
So we’re in the fuel cell business but we see ourselves supporting the emergence of fuel cell vehicles. Emergence is probably the right word. There are probably less than 1000 fuel cell vehicles in California today but all the fuel cell vendors are gearing up to produce fuel cell vehicles. The other thing that’s been happening is that there’s been a chicken and egg problem where the car makers didn’t want to make cars because there weren’t any filling stations, and the people who could put in filling stations didn’t have many cars, while in the US probably the leader in breaking that has been the California Energy Commission, which has stepped up and provided funding. Ultimately, they are probably going to fund 100 stations. The CEC is funding most of the cost of the initial bunch of stations, largely in the Los Angeles area and in the bay area around San Francisco. That is providing the opportunity that people like Toyota and Honda see to start producing fuel cell vehicles into that market.
That’s where we’re also focusing on rolling out this technology that we call Trigeneration. Almost all the fuel cells are deployed in Combined Heat and Power (CHP), so in addition to the electricity, we have some waste heat that we use to make steam or hot water. We like to talk about this as Trigeneration – making power, heat and hydrogen. The first of the systems we produced was actually in Southern California at a wastewater treatment plant. It was a smaller system because there weren’t that many cars in those days. We demonstrated that you can in fact make hydrogen from this type of fuel cell and clean it up so that’s it usable for vehicle fuel. That’s basically what we want to roll out in the next few years for the California market, which is where we see the initial fuel cell market expanding.
Kurt: What we see and hear is that there is a range anxiety issue, where you have a longer range with a fuel cell vehicle and the speed of refuelling is comparable with gasoline. When you think of that refuelling in an urban location, if you need to charge overnight and you don’t have a driveway, say if you’re in an apartment or in a high-rise, it starts to be an infrastructure issue. And then there’s the battery weight for larger vehicles, delivery vehicles, buses, really points you more towards a fuel cell vehicle than battery.
So the chicken and egg situation you described, that’s what you mean by the FCEV fuelling infrastructure dilemma?
Tony: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Can you tell me about the Trigeneration process used by FuelCell – what does this involve?
Tony: Yeah, so what we’ve done is that we’ve taken our largest product, the 2.8 MW system I mentioned and we’ve introduced a modification where we convert all the fuel to hydrogen, but we’re going to leave some of the fuel left over, unreacted, and extract it from the system and purify it so it can be used in either industrial uses or for vehicle fuelling. That is the addition we’re making to what is otherwise our standard product. The 2.8 MW system in this hydrogen generation mode produces about 2.3 MW, it will produce about 1200 kilograms per day of hydrogen.
Given the success of this project, could WWT plants all over the US be used for biogas production for FCEVs?
Tony: We certainly think so. We’re talking to all the big wastewater treatment municipals in California, and they’re certainly expressing interest as an exciting thing to be involved in. You’re really looking for a confluence of things, large population centres where there will be larger wastewater treatment plants as well as a significant vehicle population, Los Angeles and San Francisco are the two that are really shaping up to fit that criteria, but I also think you’re going to see it as well in the northeast. Not as soon as California, but it’s definitely going to happen in the big population centres in the northeast as well.
And there’s a lot of activity in Europe also.
That’s interesting, tell me about that.
Basically there’s different hydrogen centres, Cologne is one, I think there is some activity in the UK as well. This is all just demonstration model at this point, no-one has really kick-started things the way the CEC has done. There are these centres of interest, Scotland is one, where people are interested in introducing it in fleets and so forth, and then as they see success in California, I think they’ll see it rollup in passenger cars.
What time frame do you see this happening?
We’d like to see deliveries of these first water-scale Trigeneration systems in about a year and a half to two years. That’s a good match for the timing of the rollout of the vehicles people are talking about in California, I think that’s the start. By the time we start the first of these modified systems people will see that there’s good traction in adoption of fuel cell vehicles.
The other thing that supports this market for us is that in addition to vehicle fuel, there are a lot of companies out there, including us, who use hydrogen for industrial purposes. We actually have one of these systems in our factory in Connecticut, we produce hydrogen from the fuel cell while we make electricity for the factory. The emerging vehicle market looks like it’s going to emerge pretty quickly.
What’s the next step for you in developing this process/technology?
The next step in developing it is just to engineer this modification. It’s a relatively small change to our standard product. The next step is therefore to do some engineering, build the first one in the likes of a year and a half to two years. We’re talking to a variety of potential site hosts. Ideally it will be a wastewater treatment plant because of the anaerobic digestion process where they have a lot of solid waste to dispose of, and food and beverage manufacturers do this as well, using a process called digestion where they mix it with some bacteria and break down the solid waste so there’s less to dispose of. Methane is considered a by-product of that and is considered renewable and we have several projects in California that are producing renewable power from this methane. So our next step is at the MW scale to produce renewable power and renewable hydrogen.
Tell me a bit more about CARB’s low carbon fuel standard (LCFS)
This is a recent development, an incentive programme in California which helps pay for this hydrogen. The idea is that if your fuel is lower carbon than conventional gasoline, California Energy Commission will pay you an incentive depending on how much lower you are. This supports fuels such as biodiesel, and they are just starting to work with hydrogen, the way the process works is that you have to give them the particulars of how you produce the fuel and they calculate what the carbon intensity of the fuel is. What you want is a very low carbon intensity, so that compared to gasoline you’re emitting much less CO2. We were hoping for zero. They gave us a negative carbon intensity, which means that not only did we avoid the carbon that would be in the gasoline but you avoid even more carbon than that, because there are other uses for the biogas. This is a really good carbon intensity score to get and it will really help the adoption of the technology.
How far has the California drought for example driven this process?
California is insisting that 30 percent of the vehicles run on renewable hydrogen, so they have a very keen focus in California on renewable power and renewable fuel.
Tony Leo is Vice President of Application Engineering and New Technology Development at FuelCell Energy and Kurt Goddard is the Vice President Industrial Relations and Corporate Communications. FuelCell Energy is a global leader in providing ultra-clean baseload distributed generation to utilities, industrial operations, universities, municipal water treatment facilities, government installations and other customers globally. The Company’s power plants are fuel flexible using on-site renewable biogas, clean natural gas or directed biogas.