Severe weather events over the last several years have demonstrated that America’s aging electrical infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to outages and other disruptions. Intense storms, such as
Superstorm Sandy (2012) and Hurricane Irene (2011), debilitated sections of the eastern seaboard and left many communities without power for extended periods of time. The northeast grid, and those who depend on it, have been forced to seek new ways to avoid prolonged outages.
In addition to the overall physical damage caused by these storms, many communities, public services and companies are harmed by the loss of electrical power. Emergency services are harder to perform when the grid is down, including the rescue of the injured, or those trapped in high-rise buildings. Communications, including mobile phone service, is compromised. And businesses ranging from the local grocery to large-scale corporations lose money every minute they are without power. For this reason, back-up generators, typically diesel systems, are utilized to supplant lost grid power. However, this century-old technology suffers from issues of reliability, noxious emissions, and high noise levels.
Fuel cell technology is proving to be a viable and effective solution to grid reliability issues. Fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, not combustion, and when using hydrogen fuel, produce no harmful emissions. Because they contain few moving parts, they are both reliable and quiet. The Fuel Cell Industry offers a variety of highly resilient products using a number of different fueling models including those able to be fueled by packaged and bulk methanol and hydrogen. Some may be fueled through America’s vast underground natural gas lines, which are far less likely to be damaged by weather events than today’s electric utility grid.
Many utility companies are integrating large-scale fuel cell systems, up to tens of megawatts (MWs) in size, into the local power grid to generate ongoing and reliable power. Data centers are choosing fuel cells to ensure continuity of power for their business operations. Smaller back-up power units provide seamless power for cell phone towers and critical telecommunications equipment. Retailers, universities and other institutions are using fuel cells onsite, and in some communities, fuel cells provide power to emergency shelters and other essential services.
From the Caribbean to New England, fuel cell installations have proven to be effective during and after severe weather occurrences. These are documented in the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association’s recent white paper, Enhancing the Role of Fuel Cells for Northeast Grid Resiliency.
Today, several northeastern states offer programs to encourage the adoption of resilient fuel cell technology in both primary and back-up power capacities; further expansion of state-level programs would encourage wider deployment of this rugged and reliable technology. Fuel cells already power critical facilities – hospitals, police stations, telecommunications, wastewater treatment plants and, soon, microgrids – and can play an even larger role in helping the Northeast successfully ride out the next big storm. A combination of community and industry efforts must be united with the effective state policies.
As the U.S. Department of Energy noted in its December 2014 report, State of the States: Fuel Cells in America 2014, the common denominators for growing fuel cell industry success include:
- Collaboration and coordination among the industry’s players (business, government, and academia);
- Supportive government policies, created by the legislature and/or governor, which encourage the development and deployment of fuel cells;
- Incentives for fuel cell-related businesses to move to the state and to grow and succeed;
- Financial support (grants, loans, tax incentives) for end users to encourage fuel cell demonstrations and deployment; and
- Availability of a fueling infrastructure.
The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association applauds state efforts to enhance resiliency using fuel cells and encourages the expansion of programs and funding to assist vulnerable states in the reduction of the widespread impact of grid outages.
Photo Credit: New England Energy Resources/shutterstock