Fuel Cell Barge Readied For Clean Port Power Duty

Various new energy technologies – from rooftop solar power to electrified, trolley-like trucks – are being deployed or explored in a quest to clean up ports, which can be pretty gnarly operations thanks to diesel emissions. Now comes a demonstration project led by the Sandia National Laboratories that hopes to take advantage of relatively clean hydrogen fuel cells.

This is one of those seemingly simple concepts that makes you wonder why nobody thought of it before: Instead of using sulfur-spewing diesel to provide power to refrigerated containers, use a self-contained hydrogen fuel cell, built on a barge so it can be moved to where it’s needed.

port fuel cell

image capture from Sandia National Labs video

Sandia is working with Honolulu Harbor shipping company Young Brothers, as well as other project partners, to build such a system and put it into service. The plan is to house the hydrogen fuel cell unit in a 20-foot shipping container. It would come with four 30-kilowatt fuel cells, a hydrogen storage system and power conversion equipment, Sandia said.

Now, hydrogen fuel cells aren’t necessarily clean in terms of the full life cycle; it all depends on how the hydrogen is produced. Nevertheless, there can be an advantage to fuel cells in ports: at the very least, onsite emissions, polluting to both water and air, are eliminated. Plus, Sandia says their research shows efficiency advantages with fuel cells.

“We compared the efficiencies of their diesel engines versus fuel cells, studied the energy efficiencies at various power levels and estimated the savings and reductions in emissions that would be realized if they were to convert to a fuel cell-powered operation,” said ( Sandia project manager Joe) Pratt. Analyses have shown that when generators are frequently producing less than maximum power, such as in the Hawaii application, the efficiency advantage of fuel cells compared to the combustion engine increases, he said.

What that means is that not only could the hydrogen fuel cell power source help make the port cleaner, “Young Brothers could save fuel and energy,” Sandia said.

The timeline for the demo is to do “detailed engineering and design through mid-2014 and, after fabrication, assembly and training for Young Brothers operators,” to put the unit into operation for six months early next year.

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.

  • jeffhre

    Shore to ship power is now more commonly available than ever to run ships housekeeping needs while in port. Bet without having to carry and compress hydrogen, those are pretty efficient also. Especially when considered next to burning bunker fuel.

    The article calls it diesel, it’s more like chunks of asphalt suspended in a thick sludge – think roofing tar with the roofing materials dumped in to boot. Won’t work too well in a Diamler terrestrial diesel, but it moves the giant marine diesels all across the oceans. Yea, lets hear for globalization! Actually, perhaps the local sourcing advocates are onto something worthwhile as well.