Fuel cells poised to transform electricity industry, but must compete with shale gas "revolution"
Fuel Cells Poised To Transform Electricity Industry, But Must Compete With Shale Gas “Revolution
By Mark Lowey
Fuel cells have reached the stage where the technology is poised to transform the electric utility industry, experts said at a Calgary symposium on solid oxide fuel cells.
But fuel cells will have to compete with the “revolution” in natural gas from shale deposits and with new technologies now extracting oil from previously uneconomical reservoirs, energy experts told the SOFC-Industry Day symposium.
The event, sponsored by the NSERC Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Canada Strategic Network, Carbon Management Canada, and the Instiute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy, and held April 24, 2012 at the Calgary Petroleum Club, focused on potential fuel cells applications for the oil and gas industry.
“It’s the most exciting time I’ve seen” for the fuel cells industry, said Nigel Brandon, director of the Energy Futures Laboratory and chair of sustainable development in energy at Imperial College, Londo
The Japanese are now using thousands of fuel cell systems to power and heat their homes, while patents on fuel cells technology represent the highest level of patent activity in the U.S. for any new energy technology, Brandon said.
“We’re at a fundamentally different point with the development of (fuel cells) technology” compared with 20 years ago, Terry Tyler, executive vice-president, chief technology officer and chief information officer at ENMAX Corporation in Calgary, told the symposium.
Fuel cells and other new power-generation and distribution technologies are about to transform the electric utility industry – something that hasn’t happened for 100 years, he said.
While residential fuel cell systems are not yet at the price-point for ENMAX to deploy the technology, fuel cells are now competitive with nuclear power or with coal-fired power coupled with carbon capture and storage, Tyler said.
A fuel cell converts fuel and air through an electrochemical reaction into electricity and heat.
Fuel cells emit no greenhouse gases and extremely low levels of nitrogen oxides and particulates, and produce carbon dioxide and heat, Brandon noted. The relatively pure stream of CO2 can be sold for industrial use while the heat can be used to make steam.
Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are able to operate on hydrocarbon fuels (including natural gas) at high efficiencies, ranging from 40 per cent for kilowatt-scale, stand-alone units to 70 per cent for megawatt-scale, hybrid fuel cell-gas turbines, he said.
SOFCs can also be run in reverse, combining CO2 with water to produce high-quality synthetic gas.
Applications for SOFCs include distributed power generation, co-generation of heat and power, and off-grid power, Brandon said.
“Micro-CHP” fuel cell systems can generate both electricity and heat for homes at about 25-per-cent greater efficiency than conventional technologies, he said.
The Japanese have installed 18,000 Ene-Farm PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell systems that deliver 0.7 kilowatts to one kilowatt of power, which is sufficient to meet about 70 per cent of a household’s energy needs (see http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/analysis/analyst-views/2012/12-02-29-ene-farm-update). Canadian homes require about two kilowatts of energy for power and heating.
The Japanese systems, which are connected to the electrical grid, have 15,000 hours of demonstrated operation and are sold with a 10-year guarantee, Brandon said. The cost is about $30,000 per system; $10,000 of that is subsidized by government.
Brandon said he expects that Japan will increasingly turn to hybrid natural gas- fuel cell technologies, especially if the country turns away from nuclear power in light of the Fukushima nuclear accident.
U.K.-based CeresPower (http://www.cerespower.com/) is currently testing five micro-CHP fuel cell units in homes in the U.K., Brandon said.
In the U.S., California-based Bloom Energy (http://www.bloomenergy.com/) makes 200-kW and 100-kW SOFC systems for distributed generation, and now has more than 250 of its 100-kW units installed across the U.S.
The number of fuel cell-related patents in the U.S. increased 57 per cent in 2010, and in 2011 there were more than 1,000 patents – the highest level of patent activity in the country for any new energy technology, Brandon noted.
Wärtsilä Corporation (http://www.wartsila.com/en/Home) in Finland has installed its 20-kW SOFC unit, which operates on methanol, on ships.
Brandon said that in the oil and gas industry, fuel cells could be used to produce the heat and power required for in situ oilsands operations while also reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and for off- grid applications in remote locations.
Asked whether fuel cell technology could operate reliably in Alberta’s winter climate, Brandon replied: “I don’t see any reason why these devices can’t operate at low temperatures.”
Brian Borglum, vice-president and chief technology officer at Versa Power Systems (http://www.versa-power.com/) told the symposium that his company, headquartered in Colorado, now has about 40 employees making SOFC systems at its manufacturing plant in Calgary.
Versa Power’s SOFC cell is a high-operating temperature device, fueled by pipeline-quality natural gas, which measures about 25 centimetres by 25 centimetres. Individual cells are stacked to create systems with the desired power capacity.
“There is definitely world-wide interest” in Versa Power’s fuel cells technology, Borglum said, adding that the company has been able to scale up its fuel cell system thanks to major support from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Versa Power also is working with The Boeing Company in the U.S. on a project that involves using fuel cells to develop and fly a very long-endurance unmanned aircraft. The technology would enable an aircraft to remain at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years, doing aerial surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Versa Power is currently operating a 10-kW, natural gas-fueled SOFC demonstration unit at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. “So far, it (the unit) looks good,” Borglum said.
The company, which also has built and shipped a 50-kW unit for Wärtsilä Corp., has an agreement with the Finnish company to develop and integrate Versa Power’s SOFC technology into Wärtsilä products.
The 50-kW test unit needs to be successfully operated for at least a year; next-generation demonstration units need to last two years and the commercial version at least five years, Borglum said. If all goes well with the initial test unit, in two years, tens of the demonstrations units would be deployed in projects around the world, he added.
Viola Birss, scientific co-director of the NSERC Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Canada Strategic Network and a fuel cells researcher at the University of Calgary, told the symposium that the network has made progress on its main goals.
These goals are: enhance SOFCs’ fuel flexibility, lower costs, and improve durability over the operating lifetime.
The network has developed very good diesel fuel “reformer” technology for fuel cells, which will have applications beyond SOFCs, Birss said.
Network researchers also have developed enhanced petroleum coke/sulphur-tolerant anodes, so SOFCs could operate on ‘sour’ natural gas containing sulphur. Also developed is a high-temperature plasma spray that enables faster and more efficient manufacture of SOFCs.
Birss said that new research directions include:
- interfacing SOFCs with CO2 capture and storage, utilizing novel porous nano-solids materials;
- producing a “clean” CO2 stream from SOFCs for geological storage;
- integrating renewables and SOFC power (for example, SOFCs could be used to covert solar and wind energy to stored energy that could be tapped when needed); and
- developing an SOFC-based “zero-emissions” naturl gas-fueled power system coupled with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Also in the development stage is a CCS monitoring and training site in Alberta that would have an onsite SOFC system providing power and carbon dioxide. The CO2 would be injected underground at relatively shallow depths to test monitoring equipment for detecting CO2 at low levels.
In the oil and gas industry, it should be theoretically possible to use SOFCs installed below the surface to produce high-quality steam required to extract in situ oilsands and heavy oil, Birss said.
ENMAX’s Terry Tyler told symposium participants that he believes fuel cells will “fuel” the transformation of the electricity business.
For residential applications, micro-CHP fuel cell systems are in direct competition with natural gas-fuelled distributed energy systems, he said.
However, the efficiency of gas-fired, combined-cycle systems declines after five years and there are substantial maintenance costs to keep such systems operating efficiently, he said. It is important to always account for the “total, all-in costs” when comparing various energy systems, he added.
SOFCs have the potential to generate clean water as well as high-quality steam, which would make them attractive for applications where water is in short supply, Tyler said.
But if micro-CHP fuel cell systems are to be widely deployed, there needs to be a “fundamental change” in existing laws and policies governing electric system infrastructure, he noted.
The current situation is that whenever the infrastructure provider (for example, to a new community) crosses a road, that provider owns the right to provide the infrastructure, he explained. That makes it impossible to deploy an ‘independent,’ self-contained CHP system or micro-grid within such a community.
Michal Moore, energy economist with the School of Public Policy and the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary, told the symposium that he doesn’t think SOFCs will ever be the single energy source for society.
However, fuel cell systems can be a “dominant bridge to the future” of energy systems, which will include new-generation nuclear power and highly efficient renewables, he said.
But Moore said that he is concerned that cheap, abundant, widely available natural gas – which he called a “Gasworld” – amounts to “a revolution” with the potential to turn the global energy system upside down and render useless existing capital investment and facilities.
He advised the fuel cells industry to look for opportunities to collaborate with other energy players, especially to “twin” fuel cell systems with other technologies.
SOFCs are “financeable,” Moore said, adding they have potential applications in distributed generation and in energy storage through tapping SOFCs’ reverse operation.
Fuel cells also have potential wherever heat is needed or in industrial chillers or where water availability is an issue, he said.
SOFCs should find a market on sea-going cargo ships and in goods-delivery trucks that might operate on a hybrid natural gas-fuel cell engine, he added.
The fastest-growing use of energy is in the transportation sector, where most greenhouse gas emissions are produced by road-based transport. There are one billion road-transport vehicles in the world, with 1.6 billion predicted by 2030.
Fuel cell technologies also could help electrify villages in remote, off-grid, poorer areas of the world, Moore said.
In the oil and gas industry, he expects that over the long term, fuel cell systems will be used, in conjunction with combined-cycle gas-fired turbines, to supplement heat and power to in situ oilsands operations.
Symposium participants identified other potential oil and gas industry applications for fuel cell systems, including providing power and/or heat for multiple wellsites, distributed energy systems, offshore drilling platforms, LNG ports and tankers, remote work camps, and carbon capture and storage operations.
However, participants also identified several barriers to deploying fuel cell technologies in the oil and gas industry, including:
- still too high a price point for fuel cell systems;
- the lack of a rigorous, independent, systems-level study on the benefits and disadvantages;
- the lack of a joint demonstration project with industry, at the scale (e.g. 250 megawatts for a distributed energy system) required by the oil and gas industry;
- the “reliability trumps (energy) efficiency” approach of the oil and gas industry.As one participant noted: “It’s incredibly difficult to sell ‘up’ the fuel cell vision.”
SOFC-Industry Day participants also discussed the future of the NSERC SOFC Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Network, whose NSERC funding will end in 2013. The network includes more than 20 research groups from universities and governments partnered with Canadian industries.
One option is to seek a renewal of NSERC funding, while another option is to proceed with a joint demonstration project in the field with the oil and gas industry, Birss said.
Even if the network doesn’t continue in its present form beyond 2013, participants agreed that the effort will continue to widely deploy SOFCs and other fuel cell technologies and ensure they are a vital component of the world’s energy future. EnviroLine
Mark Lowey is Communications Director at ISEEE and Managing Editor of EnviroLine (http://www.envirolinenews.ca)