Legrand, a manufacturer of electrical and digital infrastructure equipment, this week unveiled a 500kW solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) from Bloom Energy. The platform has been installed in its headquarters in West Hartford, CT. The company expects the fuel cell to eventually provide 88 percent of the electricity used by the buildings on its 263,000-square-foot campus.
The need for effective ways to store energy is growing in tandem with the growth of renewable energy and grid diversification and decentralization. Fuel cells can play an important role. Until now, however, their science and economics have been problematic. SOFC’s are seen as one way to meet this challenge.
SOFC could be a way to make fuel cells more viable. It appears that the early rollout stage has been reached. Bloom says that SOFCs offer benefits that make that make it among the most promising storage technologies. Other types of fuel cells use expensive, corrosive or hard to contain materials. This leads to poor financial performance. Using the fuel cells to create combined heat and power (CHP) systems helps but, according to the company, only are effective “in environments with exactly the right ratios of heat and power requirements on a 24/7/365 basis.”
The ceramic materials that are used in SOFCs are inexpensive and the high heat creates an efficient system without the need to use CHP. The approach presents engineering challenges that Bloom claims it has met. “Solid oxide fuel cells are electromechanical devices that convert the chemical energy of fuel and an oxidant directly into electrical energy without combustion taking place,” according to Bloom. “The result is an energy source with a much lower environmental impact compared to traditional power systems. The cells require a sand-like powder instead of precious metals, which cost much less and conversion from fuel to electricity happens at twice the rate of conventional technologies.”
Bloom is not the only company active in the SOFC category. Earlier this month, BCC Research released a report tracking the progress of the category. Though in its early days, the SOFCs are making significant progress: the value of the market doubled between 2008 and 2012 (from $303 million to $622 million) and is expected to do so again between last year and 2020 (from $662 million to $1.2 billion). The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is 12.3 percent. Technavio, another research firm, is slightly less optimistic. It said earlier this year that it expects the SOFC category to be worth $815.6 million by 2020.
Part of that growth may come from a next generation version of the technology. Reversible solid oxide fuel cells have the capability to both store energy and generate electricity. In February, Boeing provided a RSOFC to the Navy. According to Boeing’s press release, the system — which generates the electricity with no emissions – was commissioned on Southern California Edison’s grid at Boeing’s Huntington Beach, CA, facility. It subsequently was delivered and installed at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Engineering and Expeditionary Warfare Center in Port Hueneme, CA., the release says.
There are not too many players yet in the SOFC category. In addition to Bloom, a U.K.-based company — Ceres Power – offers the technology. Dominovis Energy, which is headquartered in Atlanta, also is a provider. FuelCell Technology, which is based in Danbury, CT, announced in July that that the U.S. Department of Energy selected three of its projects for funding.
Legrand has high hopes for the project. The system is expected after the first year to reduce energy intensity at the site about 21 percent versus a 2012 baseline. It also is expected to generate 85 percent of electricity demand while producing half the carbon dioxide than natural gas options. The deployment is part of an effort by Legrand to cut energy intensity by 25 percent compared to the baseline.
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