SoCal Gets Biggest Digester-Gas Powered Fuel Cell In US

Fuel cells aren’t perfect — they can be expensive and there are questions about their durability. But their benefits are so, well, cool might be the word, that it’s impossible not to get excited about their long-term possibilities.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at wastewater treatment plants, which are using fuel cells to transform themselves from power hogs and greenhouse gas spewers to very green operations.

wastewater treatment fuel cell

image via Anaergia

Take the new 2.8 megawatt system installed at an Inland Empire Utilities Agency wastewater treatment plant in Ontario, Calif. It’s now the largest fuel cell operating on digester gas in the United States, and it’s giving the agency a big boost in its “Go Gridless by 2020” plan [PDF].

The Ontario plant is using a DirectFuel Cell from FuelCell Energy – the same company that last year helped a Fountain Valley, Calif., treatment plant turn the methane generated from digesting biosolids into electricity to run the plant while also producing hydrogen for a fuel-cell vehicle fueling station.

The Inland Valley facility isn’t doing the hydrogen-for-cars thing, but the payoff from the fuel cell plant still seems pretty impressive.

Through a power purchase agreement, the system – designed, built and owned and operated by Anaergia – provides base load power that offsets about 60 percent of the grid power the treatment plant had used, according to the developer. Biogas created through anaerobic digestion of solid waste is “cleaned and conditioned” for use in the fuel cell instead of being combusted. (Remember, in the fuel cell, there’s no combustion; it’s an electrochemical process.)

Anaergia said the system “reduces NOx, SOx and particulate matter emissions from the installed fuel system by 70%-90% compared to typical internal combustion systems.”

This is especially important in Southern California, where the South Coast Air Quality Management District, in an effort to clean up some of the nation’s dirtiest air, has tight emissions standards.

“The clean electrical generation process and the reliable 24/7 operating nature of the fuel cell will help us attain the objectives of our strategic energy plan and position us to meet ever more stringent clean air emission requirements,” IEUA Board President Terry Catlin said in a statement [PDF].

On page 2: The pluses and minuses of molten carbonate fuel cells...

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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