We’ve all heard about fuel cells by now – they’re in electric cars, among other places. Here is an interview with Bill Sproull and Katrina Veerman of ClearEdge Power, a startup based in Portland, Oregon, with offices opening in California. ClearEdge has developed a modular fuel-cell product that can provide heat and power for almost any size structure, from a private home to a large commercial building.
“This is not a pie in the sky… this is practical, everyday stuff.” – Mark English, AIA
What the heck are fuel cells, anyway?
Essentially it’s a battery. The difference is that a regular battery has a fixed amount of reactant, and when that is depleted, you must either dispose of the battery or re-charge it.
Fuel cells run continuously on pure hydrogen that has been catalyzed – not combusted – from a readily available fuel such as natural gas. Even though it uses the same fuel as conventional power, the fuel-cell energy extraction process is cleaner and more efficient, thus reducing emissions, including greenhouse gases.
Are these the same kind of fuel cells used in electric cars?
No. There are actually several types of fuel cells out there. One is the type you’d find in an electric car or power backup system, which are low-temperature fuel cells that run at around 90 degrees Centigrade (194 Fahrenheit). Low-temperature fuel cells are easily assembled from low-cost components, but, the hydrogen fuel must be very pure. CO impurities poison the catalyst.
A second type are very high temperature fuel cells for large industrial applications.
ClearEdge Power’s fuel cells are in between the two, and run at 160 degrees Centigrade (320 Fahrenheit). At this temperature, CO does not contaminate the fuel cell. This makes it practical for continuous-run applications that get their hydrogen from various fuels.
Tell me again how they work?
Here’s a sample. (hands out something that looks like a 6″ hard disk drive). Chambered layers are separated by a Gore-Tex-like membrane with a catalyst.
To use, you must draw the fuel – hydrogen from natural gas in this case – across the membrane which allows electrons to separate. What you are doing is borrowing electrons in a controlled chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.The by-products of this reaction are heat and water.
- First, the fuel, natural gas in this case, goes through a catalytic conversion process to separate the hydrogen and the carbon.
- The hydrogen goes to the fuel cell stack where it is consumed, generating both heat and electricity.
- The carbon and oxygen go through one more step, to produce CO2, which is released outside. There are no carbon monoxide emissions.
- Electricity from the fuel cell then runs through an inverter to produce AC power for the building.
- The excess heat is transferred to the building for hot water and space heating.
How much power can you get out of one of these things?
ClearEdge’s initial product offering is called the CE5 and is capable of producing 5,000 watts of electricity, plus an additional 6,000 watts of heat. Operating 24-7, that’s 120 kWh per day or 43,800 kWh per year.
Are your fuel cells more efficient than conventional electric power?
Well, for example, in this office right now, the electricity is about 35% efficient. It comes from a power plant that burns some kind of fuel – natural gas or coal for example. Of the total energy generated by these combustion power plants, only 40-45% is converted into usable electricity. The other 60% is either lost in heat dissipation at the plant or in transmission to the point of consumption.
The fuel cell is more efficient than conventional power because the heat generated by the catalytic process is recaptured by the system and put to use in the building instead of being dissipated.
Our fuel cells are about 85% efficient when the heat is reused – more than double conventional power from the grid.
How do these fuel cells reduce carbon footprint?
The carbon footprint policies are designed to reduce CO2 production by reducing consumption of fossil fuels. While it’s true that our product still releases carbon, and it does consume fuel, it’s a cleaner and more efficient process than conventional combustion, because…
…by locating the power plant at the home, you can capture heat that’s otherwise lost – thus reducing consumption of fossil fuels that would otherwise be needed for heating.
The reason we’re using natural gas now is because it’s an infrastructure fuel – easy to get, clean burning. Pollutants comprising the major components of smog are eliminated. The system includes a de-sulfurization to remove sulfur dioxide, and because there’s no burning, there is no nitrogen oxide.
- A 5 kW fuel cell can provide 120 kWh/day compared to 23 kWh from a 5 kW solar installation that’s located in the desert.
- Offsetting power demand at the power plant means that less fuel is consumed at the plant itself – and, the fuel cells’ heat-recycling feature offsets the need to burn additional fuel for heating.
- The result is 11 times the energy from the same capital investment. Fuel-cell systems cut CO2 emissions and reduce fuel consumption three times more than solar.
We don’t want to dismiss solar energy, however. Solar is a great peak-demand-shaving technology, and for many locations it’s the right choice. In places where infrastructure fuel is readily available, however, solar doesn’t have as much impact as fuel-cell systems.
Overnight, by installing one of our units, you can cut your greenhouse gases by 40%.
What’s the optimal project candidate for your fuel cell product?
Because the cells run steadily 24×7, thus generating a consistent output of heat which can be stored for use during the day, the best applications are buildings like hotels, restaurants, or larger residences that need heat and hot water most of the time.
We decided on a 5 kW system for our first product to address a wider variety of situations, but there’s a definite cutoff. A 3,500 SF home might need only 2 kW, and may not consume much power when the occupants are not at home. So, it would not be able to take full advantage of the fuel-cell technology. A restaurant, on the other hand might need 20 kW plus a lot of heating – that would be 4 of our units.
Large residential homes are a low-hanging fruit because of the way PG&E rate structures work, with very high tiers or high time-of-use rates. Other types of projects include hospitals, fire stations, and schools – especially schools with a pool.
What kind of products are available from ClearEdge?
Our initial offering is called the CE5. It’s a 5,000-watt unit in a cabinet that’s five and a half feet high. Inside, it’s got a fuel processing unit, a fuel-cell stack, and a DC-AC power converter that is essentially the same thing as a solar inverter, converting DC into 120/240 AC.
It’s designed to be modular. The units can be deployed in groups of one or more up to 100 kW, depending on your power needs.
The pricing includes installation and also ongoing maintenance and monitoring. We have field offices within 2 hours of every installed unit, and remote monitoring, control and diagnostics over the Internet.
So does this mean you have certain coverage areas?
We only deploy in areas where we can provide onsite maintenance within 2 hours – so for now, we’re selling within California only. Our coverage areas will increase as we expand our field network.
How much does it cost?
Each unit is $50,000, or $10 per watt before incentives. This includes maintenance and warranty for the first 5 years.
How much do you really save with it?
As I said, a 3,500 SF home with only intermittent power use might not be cost effective.
However, a 7,000 SF home on the Peninsula, where it’s much hotter than in San Francisco, might easily consume 40,000 kwh per year.
(Bill and Katrina show us a series of ROI charts, quite a few of them)
The savings are partly from PG&E’s tiered rating structure. PG&E’s rates per kWh vary depending on the level of consumption, time of day, and location. Generally they allow 8-12 kWh per day at the lowest tier rate. After that, it costs more, as much as $0.44 per kWh.
Can you get PG&E credit for excess production?
You can bring your electric bill almost to zero for the year, but you can’t get paid for producing more than you use – yet.
Some other countries like Germany do reward people who over-produce their own power. They get credit for feeding it back into the grid. That’s one reason solar power is so popular in Germany. And… Germany’s got a climate similar to San Francisco in terms of sunshine, at any rate.
What’s the lifespan of your equipment?
Our current system is designed to run for over 10 years. We service the fuel cell stack and the fuel processor about every 5 years. Our goal is to get to 10 years without service, except for some filter changes.
What can go wrong with a unit?
They’re not too different from a car – you’ve got major components and then controls. The components are designed to last; there will be some gradual material degradation over time.
That’s one reason we’re deploying our early systems in a wide range of environments – Palm Desert, with heat and fine dust, or along the coast, with salt-laden moisture. We want to see how the components perform under different environmental and climactic conditions.
Our technicians can perform remote diagnostics, proactive monitoring, and control over the Internet, and we have a field office within 2 hours of every installation.
Can fuel cells run on alternative fuels such as biodiesel?
We believe so. We’re exploring new products that will run on other fuel types, including biodiesel and biogas.
What is your installed base? Do you have any reference sites?
We’ve been deploying since the first quarter of 2008. We started with prototypes deployed at commercial sites and our own building, and we are now deploying the beta version in a variety of sites: hotels, fire stations, restaurants, offices, multi-unit apartment buildings, commercial buildings with a lot of heat use, and private residences.
Do your customers care about the green?
They care about green solutions that offer a financial payback. (Shows more ROI charts)
With our product, the payback can be as fast as three years.
Can you get tax incentives or other rebates for installing these fuel cells?
There are both California and Federal incentives. The State of California offers a self-generation incentive program (SGIP) of $2.50 per watt, which would amount to $12,500 for installing one of our 5 kW units. Federal tax credits include 30% of the project cost for commercial projects, or 10% for residential.
Both these programs act to lower the initial investment cost.
How do building officials respond to your technology? What will plan checkers say when they see plans that call for fuel cells?
Most of them really support it. We’re meeting with the building departments for every area we sell into, one at a time, to educate and answer questions.
Our products are pending certification through CSA like any other gas heating appliance. Deployed systems to date have received field label certification from another NRTL, ETL
Discuss fuel cells from an architectural standpoint.
Generally, architects like the smaller footprint of a compact fuel cell system. It’s easy to design around. It can be tucked away inside a mechanical room, or it can go outside with pool or air-conditioning equipment.
What about retrofitting existing buildings? Do you have to throw out the heating equipment that’s already there?
No. We would integrate the product with what’s already there: electric, heat, and gas appliances.
Retrofitting can also be done selectively. For example, you could get a single 5 kW system and provide heat to your pool, but keep the existing systems for the house.
For a complex retrofit, what would the architect have to do?
We produce all necessary installation and site configuration drawings, then work with the architect and contractor to implement a retrofit construction strategy. The complexity depends on how many heat loads you want the CE5 connected to at the site. These could include hot water, radiant or forced-air space heating, or spa and pool heating.
Where can our readers go for more information?
Interested architects, engineers, builders, and others can visit the CEP Professional Trade section of our web site and download specification sheets, sample configurations, as well as installation and maintenence manuals.
You can also contact Katrina Veerman, Northern California Sales Manager, at 415-602-8939 or 877-257-3343 x232.
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.