Fuel Cell Energy

Exxon Teams up with Fuel Cell Energy to Capture Carbon from Natural Gas Power Plants

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A few years back, there were major investments being made by the DOE and other parties to develop carbon capture and storage (CSS) solutions for coal plants. At the time, the goal of those systems was to bring down the emissions level from coal plants to a level comparable to cleaner natural gas. To do more than that would have been prohibitively expensive. Many of those efforts, notably the FutureGen, after a long and complex history has now been sidelined, primarily because of cost. But, despite the fact that renewables have made unexpected strides and some scenarios show them providing as much as 80% of electric demand at some point in the future, CCS technology should not be considered irrelevant.

First, in places like India and China, where substantial amounts of coal will still likely be burned for decades to come, CCS will be needed to mitigate the impact. But even in places like the US, where coal is rapidly disappearing, the bar has now been raised. Instead of applying CCS to bring coal plants down to the level of natural gas, it is now being considered as a way to bring natural gas-fired plant emissions down to the level of solar and wind.

Major fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Shell are making substantial investments in CCS, in the hope that ultra-clean natural gas plants will continue to operate, not just as a bridge fuel, until something cleaner comes along, but as a source of energy demand that will provide them ongoing revenues for decades to come. According to Shell’s scenario planning, natural gas will continue to provide 25% of electric power right through the end of the century. While solar and wind command most of the attention, it’s difficult to see an economy the size of ours getting by without some level of natural gas for the foreseeable future. If we are to meet our commitments under COP21 however, those plants will need to be essentially carbon-free.

That puts an announcement that came out this past week into context: Exxon-Mobil announced a joint research effort with Fuel Cell Energy, to attempt to bring a very promising, and potentially affordable means of capturing carbon dioxide from natural gas power plants, while actually producing additional power in the process.

Fuel Cell Energy has been working for some time to exploit a unique feature of their molten carbonate fuel cell which allows it to take in carbon dioxide instead of air and concentrate that CO2 while still producing power. This offers the promise of an affordable carbon capture system. While originally conceived as a solution for coal plants, they found common ground with Exxon-Mobil who has been developing a portfolio of options to sequester emissions from the natural gas plants that they hope to keep supplying in the years ahead.

Last week’s announcement marked an increased commitment on the part of the two companies to move towards the development of a pilot scale demonstration.

The Surprising Role of Fuel Cells in Today’s Clean Economy

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - While few were looking, and while there seemed to be little energy news beyond the occasional automotive announcement (which most people dismiss as a futuristic longshot), fuel cells have quietly been finding valuable niches, particularly in the industrial world.

A recent report by the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association says that 9% of Fortune 500 companies and 23% of Fortune 100 companies are using fuel cells in some aspect of their operations. The primary uses are for backup power generation and material handling equipment (MHE). The current market in industrial fuel cells has hit the $2 billion mark with more than 13,500 units deployed.

While one might question the practicality and affordability of using fuel cells for backup power, it turns out that they are well-suited to the role. Companies cite a variety of reasons for using fuel cells for distributed power generation (DG) including:

  • An assured, reliable electricity supply
  • Better energy management control.
  • Clean, renewable energy boosts the company’s image
  • DG reduces energy costs

Backup plants can also be used for peak shaving and other demand management schemes. Large electric customers typically pay demand charges that raise costs during periods of high demand. By producing their own power during these periods, industrial customers can save money. Fuel cells tend to have rapid startup times as compared to diesels and are also far cleaner.

Other savings accrue from “cost savings on electricity or fuel purchases; emissions savings from being a more efficient, non-combustion technology; time savings from less maintenance, fewer fuelings and longer run time; and water savings at a time where droughts are hitting some states so hard that restrictions are being imposed on water use.“

Isn’t There Something We Can Do With All That CO2?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There can be no question that our energy supply is undergoing profound changes, driven first by concerns over peak oil that have been superseded by concerns over greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable supply has surged to the point where the idea of a future entirely free of fossil fuels now seems possible. Last year in the U.S., non-hydro renewables contributed more than hydro for the first time ever, with the total expected to exceed 14% of all electric generation in 2016. While that is hardly the lion’s share, it can no longer be described as the “tiny fraction” it once was.

Electric cars are still a tiny fraction, and no one is expecting gasoline or diesel to evaporate from the scene anytime soon. But on the power generation front, people are having existential conversations about the future of coal.

The dirtiest of all fossil fuels, coal has been targeted from the outset, the greenhouse gas issue only adding to previous concerns about mine safety, acid rain, mercury, mountain top removal, and more. But there is still a lot of it around and, because these concerns were never properly priced into it, it is still cheap.

Here in the US, coal consumption grew strongly from the 1950’s until it began to decline in 2007. The industry prevailed upon the government to invest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which would extract some portion of the CO2 from an exhaust stream, pressurize and liquefy, and then inject it underground. This was the premise behind FutureGen, which had apparently come back from the dead last year, only to be shut down again when the DOE withdrew funding. The technology is expensive to build, extracts a significant energy penalty in parasitic losses, and is unproven from a long-term environmental impact perspective.

The story may not yet be over. Given the continued commitment to coal burning in China and India, and their growing concern over emissions, it is possible that funding for this technology might pick up again. In the meantime, though, other approaches continue to emerge.

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