Fuel Cell System Saves the Day in Connecticut in Wake of Winter Storm Alfred

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SppUDm_hPw&version=3&hl=en_US] The unexpected, early arrival of ‘Winter Storm Alfred’ – a classic example of a Nor’easter – hit New England hard. Residents of the state of Connecticut were particularly hard put: on Oct. 29, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy estimated that as many as 500,000 residents were expected to be without power and that the outages were likely to be prolonged, according to a Windham Today news report.

That number was quickly increased to a historic 831,000 left in the dark, as Connecticut Power & Light president and COO Jeff Butler became the target of acerbic, scathing verbal attack. By the end of it, nearly 1 million of an estimated total 1.8 million power outages across the New England region occurred in Connecticut. Compounding the problem was the reluctance of work crews to respond to outages as they hadn’t been paid for the emergency work they did for the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, another “freak” storm that affected the Northeast this year.

Fortunately for many, some emergency shelters, government offices, shops and businesses had fuel cell systems in place. When grid power failed, emergency response mechanisms kicked in, with fuel cell systems supplying critical electrical power, as well as heat and hot water.

Winter Storm Alfred Hits South Windsor, Ct.

Occurring as it did in the fall, leaves were still on the deciduous, as well as evergreen, trees that still characterize the area, providing plenty of surface area for wet, heavy snow to accumulate. In many cases, the weight of the snow caused widespread damage to power lines, as branches and trees snapped off or collapsed on them.

The “freak” October snowstorm was likely the worst in living memory for residents of the Hartford County town of South Windsor, Ct. – population approaching 26,000 – South Windsor High School facilities manager Patrick Hankard told Clean Technica. Hankard served as State Forester and Superintendent of Streets for Hartford, the state capital, before taking up his current job at South Windsor High.

Hankard estimated that some 85% of the South Windsor community were without power for a week or more in the aftermath of Winter Storm Alfred. “It ranks right up there,” Hankard said when asked to rate the severity of the storm for Connecticut and South Windsor residents. “I’ve seen blizzards and ice storms…I’d say this was number 3 for me, but I’m sure it’s number 1 here for the local community.”

UTC Fuel Cell System Keeps Lights, Heat On, Hot Water Running

Like many public schools, 250,000 square foot South Windsor High works double duty, serving as a community shelter in emergencies. Serving in this capacity, South Windsor High ran for nine consecutive days and nights in the aftermath of Winter Storm Alfred. Emergency workers housed, fed and provided hot showers for between 400-600 area residents and others per day during the period, Hankard recounted.

“At one point we had to ration power…” At the peak of operation, those staying in the shelter had to stop using curling irons and blow dryers, which apparently prompted some griping.

Much more significant – which afforded the luxury of complaining about the lack of power for blow dryers – was the performance of South Windsor High’s UTC PureCell fuel cell system. “The fuel cell system saved the day and performed flawlessly,” Hankard told CleanTechnica.

South Windsor’s UTC PureCell Model 200 fuel cell system is not an auxiliary power system, nor does it only provide electricity. It’s a primary combined heat and power (CHP) system that on normal days augments grid power by supplying around 50% of the facility’s electricity needs, as well as its heating and hot water.

The UTC PureCell Model 200 CHP system was purchased with funds from Connecticut’s clean energy fund, to which all the state’s electricity users contribute a small monthly fee, according to Hankard.

Emergency Load-Shifting Dance

Facilities management staff at South Windsor High “end up doing a bit of a load-shifting dance with our fuel cell to make sure it doesn’t exceed its capacity” when grid power’s lost and the system kicks into emergency mode, Hankard explained.

A total of 85 separate steps occur per the system’s preprogrammed, but adjustable, emergency protocol when grid power cuts out and the system switches to “grid-independent mode.” The freezers and refrigerators are turned off and the kitchen cook line circuits are turned on when meals are being served, which then shifts to the dish washing equipment and then back to the freezers when meals are finished, he elaborated.

Lighting is actually relatively low on the fuel cell system’s grid independent power mode protocol. Emergency communications and response systems, such as fire alarms and communications, have priority, then comes heating (in winter). Providing power for lighting follows.

Besides providing power and heat on ‘normal’ days and emergency power and heat when needed, the fuel cell system is also part of Windsor High’s curriculum. Classes on fuel cell and power systems basics, design and operations are on offer, Hankard added.

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