Utility back-up power: San Diego Gas & Electric eyes fuel cells

San Diego Gas & Electric is installing GenCell’s fuel cells for clean back-up power at substations.
Published: Thu 23 Feb 2017

In this renewables-oriented world, the focus is primarily on solar and wind and the possibility of adding battery storage for later reuse of the generated electricity.

Surprisingly fuel cells – which have been around since the mid-19th century and can perform the same function - get little attention or press coverage.

Fuel cell opportunity

But this is on the cusp of changing. According to Navigant Research, the market for stationary fuel cells is transitioning toward maturity and wider adoption, buoyed by improving economics, government support and growing demand for resilient, dispatchable power.

For example, over 150,000 microcombined heat and power units have been installed in Japan, where prices have fallen substantially under a dedicated subsidy scheme. The plan is to install 5.3m fuel cells by 2030.

In the United States and South Korea, major energy players like Apple, Constellation Energy and POSCO Energy have invested millions in fuel cell projects.

Large global conglomerates including General Electric, Doosan and LG also have entered the market with major investments.

Navigant Research identifies three drivers that are improving the business case for fuel cells – their dropping prices due to maturing supply chains and economies of scale; the low natural gas prices which are low enough to encourage natural gas use but high enough to also justify the high efficiencies afforded by fuel cells; and continued rising electricity prices.

“These three drivers are combining to allow fuel cells to reach grid parity in a growing number of markets.”

In addition to these advances there also are declines in both the costs of capital and operations and maintenance, further improving the attractiveness of the technology.

Utility back-up power for substations

With California at the forefront of clean energy innovation, it is of no surprise that one of the major utilities there should be looking at energy storage such as fuel cells.

There San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has been working over the past year with Israeli fuel cell developer and manufacturer GenCell to test how fuel cells can contribute to the company’s clean energy efforts.

The upshot of this is that SDG&E has now launched a three-year effort to install 30 GenCell G5rx back-up fuel cells at its substations.

In the event the power grid goes down, the fuel cells will automatically operate enabling breakers and controls to stay operational. In addition, utility back-up batteries are automatically charged with the potential to be kept at full power for up to 10 times longer than normal battery rooms. The result could be shorter outages and more rapid power restoration for customers.

“At SDG&E, we pride ourselves on being innovative and at the forefront of applying new technology that ultimately improves the lives of the customers and communities we serve,” said Dave Geier, Vice President of Electric Transmission and Engineering for SDG&E.

“With GenCell’s fuel cell innovation we immediately saw that it could help to advance our efforts in clean energy and continued excellence in reliable energy service. With this technology, we aim to increase the reliability of our service to customers, while also driving clean energy innovation.”

Space age technology

SDG&E isn’t the first utility to deploy the GenCell technology. Others recent adopters include Israel Electric Corporation, for utility back-up power at the southern data-rooms and telecommunications division.

Israel’s Galil Elion Municipality is also using GenCell for utility back-up power and support to the municipality crisis management programme.

The technology is a hydrogen-based alkaline fuel cell technology, which has been widely used in space and “further developed by some of the world’s leading energy scientists,” according to GenCell. Said to be a low-maintenance solution, it does not emit any CO2 and can be used in both extreme environments and urban settings.

The G5rx offers an instantaneous injection of power generation to battery rooms with a steady power output of 5kW.

“We are particularly proud to welcome SDG&E [as adopter of our technology]” said Gil Shavit, GenCell Chairman. “With significant interest across the world, it’s clear that fuel cell technology will be common place among all world leading energy businesses in the future.”

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