Record-Breaking Fuel Cell Project Will Feed Connecticut Grid

With natural gas plentiful and cheap thanks to the shale gas boom, stationary fuel cell power plants are making more and more sense – enough sense to the giant power company Dominion, at least, to purchase what will become the largest such project in North America.

The 14.9 megawatt project planned for Bridgeport, Conn., has been discussed for years between Danbury-based FuelCell Energy and the city of Bridgeport, but it took Dominion stepping in with the money to seal the deal. The company will get the power plant turn-key style from FuelCell Energy, which valued the project at $125 million.

connecticut fuel cell energy power plant

Fuel cell power plant in Korea (image via FuelCell Energy)

The project is supported by tax incentives from the city, as well as Connecticut’s Project 150 program, which is aimed at adding 150 megawatts of renewable and clean energy capacity in the state.

This fuel cell project goes in the “clean” category – the five Direct FuelCell power plants from FuelCell Energy that will be used in Bridgeport will run on natural gas, but an electrochemical process makes them efficient and less polluting than combustion of natural gas to produce electricity. Now, natural gas has its critics, for a number of reasons, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy [PDF]:

The advantages of fuel cells for distributed power generation include: elimination of transmission and distribution losses, low emissions, increased reliability, and reduction in bottlenecks and peak demand on the electric grid. Fuel cells can also provide the very high efficiencies inherent in CHP installations, with the potential to use more than 80% of the fuel energy, compared to the 45% to 50% combined overall efficiency of using electricity from coal or natural gas plants and thermal energy from on-site natural-gas combustion. Other benefits include their nearly silent and vibration-free operation, ability to use the existing natural gas fuel supply as well as biogas sources such as wastewater treatment plants and landfill gas facilities, low operation and maintenance requirements, and excellent transient response and load following capability.

The companies involved said the plant will provide power for 15,000 average-size U.S. homes, and will be sold to Connecticut Power & Light under a 15-year power purchase agreement. The price of the electricity wasn’t revealed, but a FuelCell Energy told the New York Times earlier this year that its systems could produce electricity for 13 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

According to the Energy Information Administration, Connecticut has the second-highest power rates in the nation, at 17.39 cents/kWh, way above the national average of 9.83 cents/kWh – a factor that, combined with the government backing at the local and state level, no doubt helped to make the fuel cell project viable.

We’ve reported on a number of FuelCell Energy projects, most of which have had a renewable component, using biogas from wastewater treatment plants. For more on those projects and FuelCell Energy, check out our Q&A with the company from last December.

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.