Biogas and Fuel Cells: A Marriage of Old Ideas, New Technologies

Bud DeFlaviss, director of government affairs for the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association on the natural pairing of biogas production systems and fuel cells.
By Bud DeFlaviis | December 27, 2014

When it comes to the way we power our homes or fill up our vehicles, regardless if one’s motivation is environmental stewardship or national security, Americans have known for a long time that the status quo cannot continue.  The move to use our resources more wisely, while relying on domestically available resources is universally supported.  The path to achieving it is less clear.

Until recently, a person wanting to do their part either had to pay a lot of upfront money for residential solar panels, or resort to carpooling.  Thankfully, recent technological improvements and policies intended to incentivize biogas production and fuel cell purchases are beginning to have their desired impact.  And as the markets for these technologies continue to expand, energy providers are beginning to merge the two in a number of exciting applications. 

For those unfamiliar with the technology, fuel cells generate electricity electrochemically, without combustion.  The process consists of combining hydrogen or a hydrogen-rich fuel, with oxygen. 
For the moment, the hydrogen-rich feedstock of choice is understandably natural gas, which has become affordable and abundant, thanks to the shale gas revolution.  However, some notable projects involving biogas have been placed in service over the years that deserve attention, kudos, and replication. 

Bloom Energy, a Silicon Valley fuel cell manufacturer, features six installations where customers contract for biogas, which is directed into natural gas pipelines.  Then the fuel cell systems generate electricity on-site for the facility.  One of the company’s more visible projects is a 10 MW station that powers Apple Computer’s data center in Maiden, North Carolina.  The biogas is produced by a landfill about three miles from the data center. Data centers, which are on track to consume 140 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually by 2020 in the United States, are frequent targets for clean energy technologies.  The fuel cells at Apple supplement the company’s renewable power plan for the location, which also features a 100-acre 20 MW solar array. 

FuelCell Energy, another stationary power manufacturer, has developed a number of projects that directly utilize biogas to provide heat, power, and sometimes cooling for customers.  At the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant in San Jose, California, a 1.4 MW fuel cell provides electricity and heat to the waste water facility, reducing electricity and natural gas consumption from local utilities.  The energy generated is enough to offset the annual consumption of 1,400 households.

Like Bloom Energy, FuelCell Energy’s power plants are being employed by technology companies that value strong environmental performance and high-quality, reliable power.  The company recently completed a project in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with Microsoft to build a zero-carbon data center.  With biogas supplied from the Dry Creek municipal wastewater treatment facility, the fuel cell generates more than 300 kW of renewable power, two-thirds of which will power the data center, with the remainder powering the wastewater facility.  

Biogas and fuel cells are not just limited to stationary applications.  FuelCell Energy recently completed an advanced demonstration in Fountain Valley, California, on the world’s first trigeneration plant.  The project harnesses on-site biogas to produce electricity, heat and hydrogen for use in fuel cell electric vehicles.

While this is the first plant of its kind, the potential is tremendous for sustainable power generation as well as transportation.  By one account, installing similar trigeneration systems at California’s major waste water treatment plants would generate enough hydrogen to power about 10 percent of all the cars on the state’s roads. 

Harnessing biogas in the most efficient way possible makes sense, and will undoubtedly continue to gain traction.  However, the government can play an important role in hastening the transition to these technologies. 

Our association continues to advocate for consistent and predictable funding for research and development and advanced demonstration projects.  The same assurances should be extended to our tax policies, where appropriate and predictable tax credits should be extended for these technologies. 
Policymakers from both parties have generally agreed with these positions, but we must continue to remind it takes smart, predictable policies to get the job done.

Author: Bud DeFlaviis
Director of Government Affairs, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association