What do fuel cells have to do with the smart grid?

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By Kerry-Ann Adamson

Kerry-Ann Adamson

According to my Pike Research colleague and smart grid guru Bob Gohn, the smart grid is often described as the infusion of networking, computing, and software technology throughout the power system -- from generation, transmission, and distribution to consumers (residential, commercial, and industrial).  Essentially, its aim is to create a more flexible, efficient, and reliable power grid.  And at the heart of smart grid infrastructure is the communications network. 

But what do fuel cells have to do with a smart grid?  Potentially quite a bit.

At its essence a smart grid is about communication and flexibility.  Communication comprises bandwidth and metering, and therefore nothing to do with power production from technology such as fuel cells.  But flexibility?  With communication? Now we are talking.  (No pun intended.) 

First of all,  flexibility.  A fuel cell is a series of cells (the fuel cell stack) linked together in a series to create the required power size.  The fuel cell stacks can then be linked, either directly in series and in close proximity, or distributed, linked through a communication network, to the grid. 

Two prime examples of this are in fact the two largest fuel cell installations in the world.  The first is in South Korea.  There, a 11.2-megawatt (MW) fuel cell "park" is being run by the group Cobalt Sky to provide base load power, close to the point of demand, in Daegu City (population: 2.5 million).  On the less-than-one-acre site sit four 2.8-MW FuelCell Energy/POSCO Power systems. The MCFC units, known as DFC3000s, each comprises six identical modules working together.  The flexibility, for the grid operator, is that more units can be added as demand grows, but also that the base load power will remain, unless something disastrous happens to the gas grid.  For the smart grid, however, which is looking for an additional level of flexibility, peaking power will still be needed in a system like this.

South Korea's 11.2 MW Fuel Cell Park

Austria is the location for the other project, which takes distributed generation to a whole new level.  ClearEdge Power announced on January 10th, 2012, a deal with Güssing Renewables for 50 MWs of fuel cell power, in a fully distributed arrangement.  Unlike the Daegu City project, where the entire 11.2 MWs share the same location, the Güssing deal will see many hundreds of 5KW, 10KW and higher High Temperature PEM (HT-PEM) systems installed right across the region.  Each system will operate in a fully distributed fashion, linked by a communication network, and many will include onsite energy storage, to allow the system to continue to operate in case of grid outages. 

The aim of both of these projects, apart from hammering home the viability of stationary fuel cell technology, is to roll out highly distributed, reliable, high quality power generation.  Both systems operate as mini-networks, with communication technologies, so in essence both are already operating as part of the smart grid paradigm. 

But what about the future of fuel cells in the smart grid?

There are a number of business models already under development.  These include the roll out of five- to 10-KW systems in people's homes, whereby an Independent Power Producer (IPP) can control the power load from the systems into the grid, and the homeowner is paid for the power produced and any excess heat is used by the homeowner.  Also included are 1-MW modular systems which can be plugged into a grid when there are power dips. 

So, the answer to question, "What do fuel cells have to do with a smart grid?" is really that smart grids enable the adoption of fuel cells, and fuel cells enable the roll out of the smart grid.

About the Author
Kerry-Ann Adamson is a Research Director leading Pike Research's fuel cells practice, with responsibility for content management, key industry and client relationships, and consulting engagements. She has an extensive background in researching emerging technologies in the stationary power sector including fuel cells as well as combined heat and power.