This year at DistribuTECH, our host utility San Diego Gas & Electric and Israeli fuel cell maker GenCell made their partnership known to the world, and invited me to show off the technology they've been testing for a year.
I met with Gil Shavit and his team at the SDG&E mission control center out in the San Diego hills where the utility trains its line workers and other technicians on how to safely scale power poles and service substation equipment.
Shavit, the chairman and cofounder of GenCell, and his team filled me in on the basics of what a fuel cell is and does — something I had heard before and seen in diagrams, but never actually saw in person.
Like the electric car, fuel cell technology is not new at all, with the first ones being invented in 1838 and eventually used to make power aboard NASA space vehicles.
However, Shavit says the industry just needs to see what fuel cells are really capable of for this technology to live up to its potential.
Fuel cells, simply put, turn a fuel and some air into electricity via a continuous chemical reaction. The GenCell design shoots for greater cost effectiveness by swapping the usual expensive platinum electrode catalyst with a graphite construction that uses nanotechnology.
At the SDG&E center, we walked through a complete substation the utility maintains for training purposes. All the usual pieces were there: a battery bank, transformers, circuit breakers, but none energized except for the batteries, which were used to test out the fuel cell setup.
On my visit, the fuel cell was housed in a rather ordinary looking modular storage container, albeit fitted with some specialized ventilation. Shavit's team said the final design would include a smaller, sealable cabinet that functions as a Faraday cage and protects the inner workings from electromagnetic pulses.
Inside the container are very few moving parts at all — so few I can list them without referring back to my notes. There was the fuel cell itself, which can produce 5 kilowatts. There was a nearby heat utilization unit, which functions as a heat sink for waste heat from the chemical reaction. There was a locker-sized cabinet of computer equipment that allows operators to use the asset from remote locations.
Finally, behind a wall and with its own ventilation system was the fuel supply: several cylinders of hydrogen. Shavit said the GenCell fuel cells can make use of less pure hydrogen fuel than other fuel cells, such as the kind the chemical industry produces as a waste product.
These are the parts of the GenCell G5rx, and the entire unit can be plunked right into any substation, helping utilities keep the lights on longer when outages strike.
"The fuel cell can operate 10 times longer than existing back-up power sources, and has the capacity to maintain all substation operations versus only critical operations," according to GenCell.
Shavit and SDG&E engineers staged a sort of mock power outage by cutting the power supply from the battery bank off and demonstrating how the fuel cell takes over.
If they hadn't been there to explain, it wouldn't have been obvious what had happened—mostly because the fuel cell sounds the same on as it does off. There's no sound or vibration. In fact, the fans cooling the stack of computer equipment nearby were louder than any sound the fuel cell makes.
The other way to tell the fuel cell is working is to put your hand near a small exhaust port on the outside of the container and feel the cool, humid air pouring out. The only byproduct of the chemical reaction is heat and water.
In the future, SDG&E plans to use GenCell fuel cells at some of its substations to ensure a more reliable flow of electricity to its customers, and Shavit says the technology could have applications including peak shaving, utility black start and even balancing intermittent renewable resources.