Talk about burying the lede! Sandia National Laboratories just announced a fuel cell project to bring clean energy to the Port of Honolulu, Hawaii, but you have to read all the way down to the bottom of the press release to get to the juicy bits. Unlike your garden variety fuel cells, which run on hydrogen sourced from natural gas, this fuel cell project runs on renewable hydrogen courtesy of the US Air Force. Thanks, Air Force!
The Business Case For Fuel Cells — At Ports
Along with our sister sites Gas2.org and EVObsession.com, CleanTechnica has been hosting some lively discussions about fuel cell electric vehicles (here, here, and here for example), and while there are wide areas of disagreement, there is a general consensus that the present state of the technology is pricey.
However, the business case for fuel cell street vehicles is not the same as the case for fuel cells in other markets. We’ve already noticed that the logistics industry is becoming very interested in fuel cell electric vehicles for warehouse operations among other applications, and the market for stationary fuel cells is also on the move.
Shipping ports form another such market. Currently, diesel generators are the power source of choice for ships at ports, both on board for auxiliary use and while at berth. Emissions from those generators weren’t a particular priority until recent years, when the US Department of Environmental Protection began taking a closer look at air quality in US port cities.
Alternatively, ships can hook up to the on-shore electrical grid, but if the grid relies on fossil fuels that merely shifts the emissions from the port to the power plant.
According to a study last year by Sandia National Laboratories, hydrogen fuel cells are potentially more efficient and less costly than diesel generators because they are better able to cope with the load fluctuations that characterize energy use in ports:
…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 is widened. Even hydrogen at $5 per kilogram can potentially save tens of thousands of dollars per year for each generator.
Hydrogen fuel cells can also potentially — and we emphasize potentially — resolve the issue of shifting emissions. In addition to sourcing methane from biogas rather than fossil natural gas, more efficient technologies are emerging to split hydrogen from water using solar or wind energy.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Hawaii
That brings us to the hydrogen fuel cells project for Hawaii. As described by project leader Sandia National Laboratories, a new hydrogen fuel cell generator as been positioned in the Port of Hawaii, at the shipping facility of Young Brothers Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Foss Maritime (for the record, the US Department of Transportation is also a funding partner along with the Energy Department).
The fuel cell/generator unit, which was designed and built by Hydrogenics, consists of:
…four 30-kilowatt fuel cells, a hydrogen storage system and power-conversion equipment, all packaged in a 20-foot shipping container. With 75 kilograms of on-board hydrogen storage, the generator has enough energy to power 10 refrigerated containers for 20 continuous hours of operation.
As of this writing, the fuel cell unit is being used to refrigerate containers on shore. The end goal is to include Young Brothers’s barges in the mix.
Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cells For Hawaii
Those of you following the news may have picked on an interesting point about using the grid instead of diesel generators. Earlier this summer, Hawaii governor David Ige signed a bill requiring 100% renewable energy for Hawaii. That would seem to make the new fuel cell demo unnecessary, since ships could just hook up to the electrical grid without getting into the issue of emissions shifting.
Two things about that. First, the new Hawaii law has a timeline that extends until 2045, which provides plenty of time for fuel cells to at least serve a transitional role. Second, the fuel cell project is designed to introduce clean energy to other ports throughout the US, some which may still be cranking along on a fossil-enabled grid mix long past 2045.
Sandia Lab foresees an even wider market, according to project lead Joe Pratt:
The long-range goal is to develop a commercial-ready technology that can be widely used at other port. The project team sees a strong market need and desire for a fuel cell solution, not only at maritime ports but also for users who aren’t connected to a grid. That could extend to developing countries and remote locations worldwide.
The one loose end in all of this is the hydrogen production process. Whether you’re sourcing hydrogen from fossil gas, biogas, or water, you need significant energy input to get the job done.
That brings us to Hickham Air Force Base in Honolulu, which is providing hydrogen for the new fuel cell project. Hickham is a hotbed of hydrogen fuel cell R&D, one recent example being a solar-powered hydrogen production facility in tandem with a hydrogen fueling station:
It looks like Sandia is covering all the bases and if you have any thoughts about that, leave us a note in the comment thread.
Not to be repetitive but we will anyways, as fuel cells emerge competitively in more markets, the technology will improve because companies are fighting for market share, and that will help keep driving the market for improvements in mobile fuel cells, aka fuel cell electric vehicles.
Image Credits: top (screenshot) via Sandia National Laboratories; bottom by Senior Airman Carolyn Viss via dma.mil.