Fuel cell power plants made possible by the plentiful natural gas unleashed by the shale revolution are changing the world of heat and power as we know it.
A fuel cell is a source of power which will efficiently convert clean natural gas into virtually emissions free electricity. You can almost compare a fuel cell to a battery, but the fuel cell will never run down or need to be charged.
Fuel cell power plants are gaining momentum as they are relatively inexpensive to setup and operate. They need considerably less real estate and have no moving parts making them extremely quiet. They are also very versatile; powering whole communities or serving as backup power to places such as hospitals.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration published a report today explaining the diverse ways fuel cell power plants are being used:
At the end of 2016, the United States had 56 large-scale fuel cell generating units greater than 1 megawatt (MW), totaling 137 megawatts (MW) of net summer capacity. Most of this capacity (85%) has come online since 2013. Fuel cells collectively provided 810,000 megawatthours (MWh) of electricity in 2016, representing 0.02% of total U.S. electricity generation.
Fuel cell systems typically produce hydrogen gas from hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas using thermochemical processes such as steam reforming. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity and water. Although nearly 85% of fuel cell capacity in 2016 used natural gas, fuels such as landfill gas or biogas from the decomposition of sewage at wastewater treatment plants were also used, potentially allowing the generation from fuel cells to qualify for renewable portfolio standards in certain states.
Fuel cell power plants are sometimes used for backup power at small facilities such as hospitals. They can also be used to operate data centers for large private corporations that have committed to consuming 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.
Commercial and industrial sector fuel cell power plants are sometimes used in combined heat and power application, meaning they produce heat and steam in addition to electricity. Overall combined heat and power applications made up 26 MW of the 137 MW operating in 2016; the rest provided only electricity.
Fuel cell capacity factors in 2016 ranged significantly, reflecting a wide operating range for these fuel cells. Some were operated infrequently: 8 of the 50 plants in operation for all of 2016 had a capacity factor of 30% or lower, likely reflecting limited-use applications such as peak shaving or back-up capacity. Some were operated more frequently: about 25% of fuel cell generators had capacity factors exceeding 85%, likely reflecting primary power supply applications.
Fuel cells with combined heat and power applications typically had much lower capacity factors than those that delivered electricity only, with median capacity factors of 44% and 81%, respectively.
In 2016, 36% of total U.S. fuel cell capacity was in California, which has a number of incentives for distributed generators such as fuel cells. Fuel cell generating units in Connecticut accounted for 27% of U.S. 2016 fuel cell capacity, and plants in Delaware accounted for 22%. Both states allow fuel cells with nonrenewable fuel to meet requirements for renewable portfolio standards. The remaining fuel cell power plants are located in North Carolina and Utah.
Thanks to the shale revolution, fuel cell power plants are sure to be a large part of our future electricity generation.