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Fuel cells can alleviate power demand

As utilities operators look to a future with greater power generation coming from renewable resources, they face a challenge described in what’s known as the “duck curve,” a graph showing how electricity supply and demand change sharply throughout a one-day period.

The graph was created by California Independent System Operator, which runs power markets and long-distance transmission lines for most of the state. Its contours trace a steep decline in demand in the morning and low demand throughout daylight hours when solar energy is plentiful — the deep “belly” of the duck. Demand rises rapidly — like a duck’s “neck” — in the late afternoon.

Greater reliance on renewable resources for power generation, like solar and wind, which cannot be switched on and off or ramped up dynamically, accentuate the rapid changes, creating challenges for utilities as they try to follow the ramping up and down of demand to avoid either a dearth or a glut of electricity.

Part of the solution may be found in fuel cells that use a chemical reaction to generate electricity, Jack Brouwer explained at a seminar, dubbed Fuel Cells 101, at Woodbury University earlier this month. The technology could augment batteries and other storage methods also being explored, he said.

Brouwer is a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, which sponsored the event along with Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), the Burbank Chamber of Commerce and the Southern California Chapter of the Assn. of Energy Engineers.

Fuel cells can run on different sources, including both fossil fuels such as natural gas and renewables such as biogas, Brouwer said, but all use electro-chemical processes to create electricity with an efficiency similar to large-scale power plants. But, the process is much cleaner than combustion, he said — and unlike solar and wind power, it can be controlled.

Gary Olson, Burbank Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer, said Brouwer was invited to speak because “we thought it would be timely to find out more about fuel cells,” in light of a City Council discussion in late April about proposals by IKEA and Walt Disney Co. to use the technology at their Burbank facilities.

During the April discussion, the City Council affirmed a policy that would prevent the companies from installing fuel cells unless they exclusively used a renewable fuel source. Council members directed Burbank Water and Power General Manager Ron Davis to continue discussions with IKEA and Disney about the matter.

Representatives from IKEA and Bloom Energy Corp., the maker of fuel cells the retailer plans to use, were at the Fuel Cells 101 seminar. Erin Grizard, director of regulatory and government affairs for Bloom Energy, said Burbank was the first city to “say no” to allowing the fuel cells.

Frank Houder, construction manager for IKEA’s new store in Burbank, said the Swedish retailer is committed to producing as much energy as it consumes using renewable energy and already has a store in Emeryville using fuel cells for power generation. But he said he understands there’s resistance to the idea in Burbank.

“Anything new is met sometimes with fear,” Houder said.

But fuel cells aren’t new. Brouwer has been studying them for more than a decade, and he believes technology improvements and changes to the grid’s infrastructure could enable fuel cells to be controlled dynamically in response to the demand shifts described by the duck curve.

Right now, according to Brouwer’s research, to address those swings in demand throughout the day, utilities rely on dirtier, less sustainable technologies that generally consume fossil fuels and increase pollutant emissions, he said. But, as the grid becomes increasingly reliant on renewables, that is not a sustainable model for the future.

Processes using fuel cells — for example, harnessing solar or wind power to convert renewable biofuels into hydrogen that can then be used to power fuel cells, which then feed the grid or propel vehicles — may offer a more sustainable model, he said.

He also said storing hydrogen as fuel may be more efficient than storing electricity in batteries, so that the solar energy created during summer months when sunlight is abundant can be kept and used later in winter months, when days are shorter.

Jorge Somoano, assistant general manager for electrical distribution at Burbank’s utility, said he was already familiar with fuel-cell technology, but found parts of Brouwer’s presentation interesting, such as his discussion of research into extending the life of some fuel-cell components and ideas about transporting hydrogen through existing natural gas pipelines.

However, the discussion was more academic, Somoano said, and it reminded him of conversations about the promise of solar power decades ago that has taken a long time to come to fruition.

Various methods for storing energy produced by renewable sources are being explored to address the challenge of the duck curve, he said, but “nobody has a solution today.”

“I’m sure it’s going to require a lot of different forms of storage,” Somoano added.

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