A Trending On-site Power Option

More and more big-name companies are installing fuel cells, some powered by biogas and some marketed as such, for on-site power production.
By Ron Kotrba | September 23, 2015

About 40,000 people pass through IKEA’s 274,000-square-foot furniture store in Emeryville, California, every week, but what few of them know is that the power to run the hopping San Francisco-area retail wonderland is produced on-site from rooftop solar arrays and a newly installed fuel cell system tucked away behind the building. “We really haven’t gotten too much response from customers about it,” says Lisa Ciccoli, IKEA Emeryville’s local marketing specialist. “Some of them see it in the back of the parking lot. It just looks like a generator. We’re going to work on a better PR campaign this fall to talk about all the things we are doing here.”

IKEA’s investment in fuel cell technology at the Emeryville location—one of 40 retail stores in the U.S. and, according to Ciccoli, one of the smaller locations—reflects the company’s goal to be energy-independent by 2020 and complements other IKEA renewable programs in the U.S., including solar presence at nearly 90 percent of its locations, a geothermal heating and cooling system at two stores, and two wind farms totaling 104 turbines.

At the Emeryville store, the 300-kW fuel cell is IKEA’s latest move to be energy- and resource-conscious, as it joins a 2,394-panel solar array covering 68,000 square feet, water-saving urinals and taps in the restrooms, use of an energy-management system to efficiently use energy in the store, and four electric vehicle charging stations in the parking lot—but that’s not all. “We have changed out all our spotlights in our store to LED lighting and we have the ambition to convert all our external lights on the property to LED,” Ciccoli says, “and we divert more than 80 percent of the waste generated in our building from going to the landfill.”

The fuel cell system was manufactured by Sunnyvale, California-based Bloom Energy Corp., which has installed more than 160 MW of its systems in the U.S. and Japan. IKEA’s Bloom Energy Server fuel cell is marketed as powered by biogas, but this is not quite accurate. A spokesperson for Bloom Energy tells Biomass Magazine that the company’s systems don’t actually run on biogas, but rather what’s referred to as directed biogas. In other words, a customer using Bloom Energy’s fuel cell technology purchases biogas from a remote location—sometimes in-state and sometimes not—and that biogas is injected into the natural gas pipeline where it is used somewhere, sometime in some diluted, unknown concentration.

“The biogas for our project is presently coming from Arizona,” Ciccoli says. “This source of biogas is connected to the pipeline, which connects to California but not directly to our store. This process is called physical displacement,” adding that she believes the term “directed biogas” is used for tracking in-state purchases of biogas for tax credit purposes. “In California you get tax credits for having a fuel cell and get additional credits when you use biogas from California,” she says. “We were not able to purchase biogas in California because there was no supply.”

SOFC Technology
Similar to batteries, fuel cells use anodes, cathodes and electrolytes to produce electricity. The difference, however, is that fuel cells continuously make electricity when fed a constant fuel source like natural gas or biogas. Bloom Energy’s fuel cells are the solid oxide variety. Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) operate between 1,100 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “Each SOFC is made of ceramic materials forming three layers: the anode, the cathode and the electrolyte,” PNNL’s website explains. For a solid oxide fuel cell, the electrolyte is a solid ceramic material. The anode and cathode are made from special inks that coat the electrolyte, according to Bloom Energy, which adds that, unlike other types of fuel cells, no precious metals, corrosive acids or molten materials are required. “Air is pumped up against an outer layer, the cathode,” PNNL describes. “Oxygen from the air becomes a negatively charged ion, O2-, where the cathode and the inner electrolyte layer meet. The ion moves through the electrolyte to reach the final layer, the anode. There, the oxygen ion reacts with a fuel.” The reaction creates electricity, water and only “small amounts of carbon dioxide,” according to Bloom Energy. The water is recycled to produce steam needed to reform the fuel, and the process also generates the heat required by the fuel cell.

The advantage of fuel cells, according to PNNL, is that they’re more efficient than traditional power generation. “For example, the combustion engines of portable generators only convert about 18 percent of the chemical energy in fuel into electricity,” PNNL states. “In contrast, some SOFCs can achieve up to 60 percent efficiency.”

Many other well-known companies are using Bloom Energy’s fuel cell technology to provide on-site power, including Walmart, FedEx and Apple, to name a few. A couple of years ago, Apple’s datacenter in Maiden, North Carolina, installed a series of Bloom Energy Servers to generate 4.8 MW of power.

While Apple declined an interview with Biomass Magazine, the company’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Form 556 application from 2012 was obtained, which explains the company’s project.

Apple’s Maiden project consists of 24 200-kW fuel cell systems using Bloom Energy’s SOFC technology. On fuel use, the application states, “The systems will be fueled with biogas that will be transported via natural gas pipeline system. … Once injected into the pipeline system, it comingles with conventional natural gas and is indistinguishable from conventional natural gas. … The biogas, having been upgraded/cleaned to pipeline-quality and then injected into the natural gas pipeline system, displaces a comparable quantity of conventional natural gas. … The North Carolina Utilities Commission ruled that biogas fuel, which is derived from a renewable energy source, cleaned to pipeline quality, injected into the pipeline system and nominated for an electric generation facility within the state of North Carolina, is a renewable energy resource known as ‘directed biogas.’”

Biomass Magazine couldn’t confirm where Apple was purchasing its biogas from, but the datacenter is about six miles from the 800-acre Blackburn Landfill, also in Catawba County, North Carolina. The landfill captures its biogas and generates 3 MW of electricity at the colocated Catawba County EcoComplex, which is tied into the grid.

Carbonate Technology
There are four primary fuel cell technologies, including carbonate, solid oxide, phosphoric acid and polymer membrane. While Bloom Energy’s systems utilize SOFC and run on so-called directed biogas, FuelCell Energy Inc.’s systems leverage carbonate fuel cell technology, which the company says is well-suited for megawatt-class applications. Moreover, some of FuelCell Energy’s systems run on actual biogas. The company is, however, researching SOFC technology for smaller, submegawatt applications. The carbonate fuel cell derives its name from its electrolyte, which consists of potassium and lithium carbonates.

This spring, FuelCell Energy announced execution of a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the city of Riverside, California, to install a 1.4-MW combined-heat-and-power plant at the Riverside Regional Water Quality Control Plant. FuelCell Energy’s systems differ from Bloom Energy’s not only in its use of carbonate vs. SOFC technology, but also in its use of CHP vs. Bloom Energy’s all-electric solution. The fuel cell power plant will convert actual biogas produced on-site from the wastewater treatment process to power the facility and two electric vehicle charging stations, and provide thermal energy for the water treatment process.

“It is great to provide the city of Riverside with a power generation solution that will deliver energy savings and energy security in an environmentally friendly way with no capital investment required by the city,” says Chip Bottone, CEO of FuelCell Energy. “Our fuel cell power plants are fuel flexible, utilizing on-site biogas for this application, which is carbon-neutral due to the renewable nature of the fuel source.”

Ernest Marquez Jr., Riverside’s principal engineer, says, “The benefits of this fuel-cell project are that we avoid the flaring of the biogas, we remove future compliance obligations from the South Coast Air Quality Management District regulations due to the emission of only water vapor from the fuel cells, and we obtain carbon credits from the California Air Resources Board. Fuel cells operating on renewable biogas solve a number of our issues and concerns about permitting and sustainability that are not easily or completely addressed by other forms of on-site power generation.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Senior Editor, Biomass Magazine