Fuel cells aren't new - electricity aboard the Gemini 5 spacecraft in 1965 came from one - but they aren't so space age anymore.
More businesses and local governments are relying on them to help reduce their carbon footprint, capitalize on renewable fuels and to generate power. At least four systems are in the San Joaquin Valley and, as this Los Angeles Times story
notes, they are "popping up" throughout the state.Bloom Energy
, a young Bay area company, has received lots of press lately for its fuel cells. Coca Cola announced this year
that it would test fuel Bloom Energy cells powered by biogas at an Odwalla plant in Dinuba, in Tulare County. The five cells could produce almost one-third of the plant's power, and cut its carbon footprint 35%.
Fuel cells also generate power at a 400,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse in Stockton
; use methane gas created from a wastewater treatment facility to provide power to the Turlock Irrigation District;
and use biogas as an onsite renewable energy source at a regional wastewater plant in Tulare
The California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative
, administered by the Air Resources Board, has information on more projects throughout the state.
It remains to be seen how popular fuel cells become - they can be the size of a vehicle and cost a bundle to install - but, if they work as intended, could make a substantial dent in an entity's carbon footprint and power bills.
The federal government has an ambitious agenda
for fuel cell research, appropriating $74 million over three years. "The investments we're making today will help advance fuel cell technology in the United States," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday. "This is part of a broad effort to create American jobs, reduce carbon pollution, and help ensure the U.S. stays competitive in the growing clean energy economy."
Fuel cells use the chemical energy of hydrogen or other fuels to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity or heat with minimal byproducts, primarily water. They can produce power in large stationary systems such as buildings or for vehicles such as commercial forklifts, buses and automobiles.
Lewis Nelson, public works director in Tulare, says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. They take biogas from anaerobic treatment of wastewater solids or animal manure and generate electricity. In 2010, Tulare is expected to save about $570,000 with the system.
"A treatment plant uses a lot of electricity, and can generally use all the electricity a fuel cell generates internally, saving the cost of purchasing electricity from a utility," Nelson says. "I think that biogas fuel cells are an excellent renewable electricity technology for wastewater treatment plants."
Tulare is currently installing its fourth fuel cell. The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.