Microgrid development in the US has so far been driven by universities and the military. Some high profile and enormous projects such as the 160MW military grid in Georgia and the 137MW grid at the University of Texas, Austin, dominate the numbers.
It therefore makes sense that for the past 16 months, Boeing has been developing a new kind of fuel cell for the United States Navy.
New fuel cell for military’s microgrids
While there is precious little detail around the system's size or specific applications, it remains evident that the military is becoming increasingly serious about the development and adoption of distributed energy resources for its usage, as well as grid security.[Fort Bliss Microgrid To Reduce Energy Costs.]
The Department of Defense is already working on establishing a network of independent microgrids that integrate distributed renewable generation, electric vehicles and demand response at its bases. The growth potential for the military microgrid market is anticipated to result in upwards of 54.8MW total capacity by 2018. This is according to Red Mountain Insights which released a report, Military Microgrids Market Potential.
According to the Secretary of Defense, 40+ DoD military bases either have operating microgrids, planned microgrids, or have conducted studies of microgrid technologies. The DoD also has 600 forward operating bases (FOBs) and is investigating the deployment of mobile microgrids in Afghanistan.
The unique reversible fuel cell
Lance Towers, director of advanced technology programs for Boeing, describes the fuel cell solution as an exciting new technology which will provide consumers with a “flexible, affordable and environmentally progressive option for energy storage and power generation.”
The Boeing fuel cell system relies on a catalytic electrolysis process that uses electricity to break up water or other materials to generate hydrogen gas, which it then compresses and stores for later use. When electricity is needed, the fuel cell can reverse itself and burn the hydrogen to produce electricity with only water for waste. Boeing claims that this is the first time that both sides of the cycle have been combined into a single system.
The Boeing system was first tested on the Southern California Edison power grid at Boeing's Huntington Beach, California, facility. It will now be connected to the Navy microgrid at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Engineering, and Expeditionary Warfare Center in Port Hueneme, California to see it can support military requirements.
This fuel cell was developed using Boeing’s experience with energy systems for unmanned undersea vehicles and can be adapted and customized for a variety of defense and commercial applications.
The viable microgrid
Over the past 5 years, the vast majority of microgrids coming online, whether grid-connected or off-grid, have been pilot projects or R&D experiments. Now the industry is moving into the next phase of project development, focusing on how to develop projects on fully commercial terms. [What Really Makes Microgrids Tick?]
With energy storage solutions becoming more flexible and affordable, the microgrid is set to become even more commercially viable.