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The Weak Link: The state of infrastructure

Fuel cells offer cities an alternative to the grid

Scott Tong Jun 19, 2015
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The nation’s power grid is experiencing more failures than ever. One city in Connecticut, Bridgeport, is taking measures to rely less on the grid and more on locally made power, known as fuel cells.

Right by the train tracks in Bridgeport, an old industrial city, is a set of big white containers connected to hoses and pipes that looks a little … too white. Too new.

Each box, about half as big as a shipping container, makes energy. Inside are fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen in a battery-type reaction.

“They kind of cross through the anode and the cathode,” says Kevin Hennessy, Dominion Resources director. “They meet one another and the electrochemical reaction creates water, heat and electrons.”

There’s no burning of a fuel at the Dominion Bridgeport Fuel Cell plant, thus fewer emissions than traditional power sources. And these fuel cells are a neighborhood source of power, an alternative to the grid if need be.

“If the larger grid has problems because of, say, a hurricane or something,” Hennessy says, “the local utility can take this output and kind of direct it to which substation they want to keep online.”

Local power can provide more reliability than centralized power-plant energy sent from far away. But how do you get permission to build a plant in a city where NIMBY (not in my backyard) has become NOPE (not on planet Earth)?

“Who wouldn’t want virtually zero emissions,” says Chip Bottone, president and CEO of FuelCell Energy. “Something that doesn’t bother your neighbors, something that can be built very quickly, something that can be put right in the middle of a population center.”

Fuel cells do cost more, about 12 cents a unit of energy compared to 5 cents for nuclear. But more states and countries are subsidizing electricity they consider higher “quality” — clean, reliable, local, non-intrusive.

However, even as fuel cell use expands, “it’s not a change that’s going to happen instantaneously,” says Joel Rinebold of the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology. Power plants are built to stay in business for decades and are typically the most affordable.

“If the market is flooded with very low-cost hydrocarbons,” Rinebold says, “there may be a delay, a desire to simply get cheap power regardless of sustainability.”

A view of the Dominion Bridgeport Fuel Cell.

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