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Using fuel cells in...

prime power generation

A national electricity grid must always be able to meet the needs of its users. This requires it to be: stable, maintaining the required electrical frequency (50 Hz in the UK); balanced, continuously matching supply to demand; and adequate, ensuring total generation capacity is never outstripped by demand. Grid supply is split into three tiers: base, intermediate, and peak load. Baseload is a permanent minimum amount of electricity that is required at all times and is met by predictable, long-running power sources, usually coal-fired plants. Intermediate power plants are more flexible and can vary output to suit the needs of the grid, but at a cost to the system operator. These include nuclear, hydroelectric and gas/diesel combined cycle turbine plants. Finally, peak power generators are called upon to meet short-term spikes of requirement and as such must be able to start up and provide power instantaneously.

Incorporating Renewable Energy

To improve energy security and cut greenhouse gas emissions, governments around the world are supporting the inclusion of renewable sources in the grid energy mix. This is complicated by the fact that the major sources of renewable energy, wind and solar power, are by nature highly variable and to some degree unpredictable. These variations in output are difficult for national grid operators to manage. Increasing the proportion of renewables currently requires an increase in inefficient, carbon-intensive spinning reserve to provide for shortfalls in energy supply. But sudden peaks in the output of wind farms and solar power plants can be just as difficult to manage. In the past year eight Scottish wind farms have received over 4.3 million in curtailment payments to stop producing electricity for fear of the grid being overloaded and destabilised. The cost was ultimately passed to consumers. Fuel cells can provide stable, predictable baseload electricity and if they are fuelled with renewable hydrogen or biogas they can offer the same low-carbon benefits as other sources of renewable energy.

Fuel cells are highly reliable, with minimal downtime & maintenance, and can ensure a consistent electricity supply. They operate with low noise and much less pollution than fossil-fuel power stations, especially if run on hydrogen. This means they can be sited close to population centres, which minimises transmission losses. Even when fuelled with natural gas, the higher efficiency of fuel cells means the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per kilowatt-hour generated is significantly lower than conventional power generation. As such, fuel cells are eligible for government incentives in a number of countries.

Fuel Cell Types Used In This Application Today

Several fuel cell technologies find application in large stationary power generation. Installations around the world use PAFC, PEMFC, SOFC and MCFC systems for the distributed generation of power for local use. For baseload provision, however, fuel cell power plants must be much larger (generally over 10 MW) and here molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFC) have been the technology of choice to date. MFCF operate at high temperatures, around 650C, and as a result the cells are less prone to carbon monoxide poisoning than lower temperature systems. As a result, MCFC systems can safely operate on a variety of fuels, including coal-derived fuel gas, methane or natural gas.

South Koreas Renewable Portfolio Standard

In South Korea, the countrys Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) came into force this year and mandates 350 MW of renewable power capacity to be added each year through 2016, and an additional 700 MW per year through 2022. Due to the benefits it offers, the Korean government has given fuel cell technology the highest weighting of any new and renewable energy source that falls under the RPS. This has led to much interest from energy companies and the country is fast emerging as a leader in large fuel cell power plant installations. Korean firm POSCO Energy supplies MCFC systems and has already installed more than 40 MW of fuel cell capacity in South Korea. It is in the process of building a 60 MW fuel cell power plant in the city of Hwaseong to help meet the stringent demands of the RPS. POSCO imports MCFC technology from FuelCell Energy, based in the USA, and completes integration of the fuel cell stacks at a purpose-built facility in Korea. In March 2012, the two companies announced a closer agreement under which POSCO Energy will build FuelCell Energy MCFC stacks in Korea under licence from 2014. It has announced its intention to sell 120 MW of fuel cells between 2013 and 2016. The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced in May that it will build 29 hydrogen fuel cell power plants by 2014, to provide a total of 230 MW. South Korea was hit by massive blackouts in September 2011, which affected millions of homes throughout the country, and the city government has chosen fuel cell technology to ensure a smooth supply of baseload electricity in the city, even in emergency situations.

Images: FuelCell Energy at NASDAQ (Fuel Cells 2000); a FuelCell Energy DFC being delivered; POSCO HQ (Choi Bu-Seok/Reuters); a FuelCell Energy Korean power park

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MAY 2012