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Energy-in-a-box: More businesses try prime fuel cells

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Fuel cells as a prime power source don't make sense everywhere, but companies including Coca-Cola are investing in them. Some, such as Whole Food Markets, have even become repeat customers.

Commercial renewable energy installations using wind and solar technologies continue to grab headlines, and rightly so. But more businesses -- at least in certain states where it makes sense -- are investing in fuel cells as prime power supplies for their facilities.

While upstart Bloom Energy has grabbed plenty of mainstream attention for its technology in this space (AT&T is its latest high-profile customer), a recent Pike Research report points to two other vendors, UTC Power and FuelCellEnergy, as the companies best-positioned to lead in this market segment. For now at least.

Notes Pike research director Kerry-Ann Adamson:

“The prime power fuel cell market is in a fluid, vibrant phase of market growth. In the midst of this critical state of development, we are seeing some new market trends appearing. These including ‘electrons or hardware’ business model where adopters lease or buy the stationary fuel cell prime power unit. The benefits of both vary depending on the adopter and, interestingly, the country in which the company is operating.”

UTC Power, in particular, has been on my radar because of its heritage and its new customer list. The company was established more than 50 years ago by powerhouse United Technologies. Its technology has been tested in all sorts of “hostile” environments: Every manned U.S. space mission has used some sort of UTC fuel cell, said Mike Brown, vice president of government affairs and general counsel for UTC Power.

UTC Power’s latest offering is PureCell 400, which uses natural gas to create 400 kilowatts of electrical power. The company claims a stack-life of up to 10 years for the technology, which is a dramatic improvement over competitive offerings (almost double the lifespan). PureCell offers 40 percent electrical efficiency.

Brown said commercial candidates for using fuel cells as a prime power source are those with a predictable consumption pattern. The market conditions also need to be right: It needs to be more expensive for these companies to buy power off the grid, all things considered, than sourcing it from the cells. Right now, the hottest states for the prime fuel cell market include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, Brown said.

Whole Foods Market was one of the first businesses to ally itself with UTC Power. The company has installed cells at locations in San Jose, Calif.; Glastonbury and Fairfield, Conn.; and Dedham, Mass.  Other high profile customers are Coca-Cola, Cox Communications, Albertson's, and the World Trade Center in New York City.

Tristam Coffin, green mission specialist for the Northeast region for Whole Foods, said the design phase can range from three to six months depending on the building’s real estate footprint. So far, Whole Foods has only tackled fuel cell implementations in new stores, although it will study retrofit scenarios in the future, he said. It expects the UTC Power cells to remain in commission for approximately 10 years. Other green metrics: using the fuel cell helps the store avoid approximately 847 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year; it also avoids using 3.5 million gallons of water, Coffin said.

The amount of load that a 400-kilowatt capacity fuel cell can carry will depend on the facility, of course. But as an example, Coffin said approximately 90 percent of the Fairfield store’s power needs -- including hungry refrigeration, lighting and IT systems -- can be served by its cell installation. In fact, the technology was put to the test shortly after it was installed during a power outage. “As a supermarket, we are considered a safe haven in times of emergency,” he said.

Connecticut architectural firm Becker + Becker is another repeat customer for the UTC Power technology. It used the technology at 360 State Street, a project in New Haven, Conn., that is Platinum-certified under the green building metrics set forth by the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design. The cells also are also being used to generate power and thermal energy at the Octagon, a 500-unit residential building on Roosevelt Island, N.Y.

“Philosophically, we are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the buildings we design. We are also looking to innovative ways to save energy,” said principal Bruce Becker.

Fuel cells aren’t for everyone, Becker said, especially in places where the cost of electricity and the cost of natural gas are close to parity. His firm doesn’t start with the intention of including the fuel cell technology in its design plans, but he advocates it when it makes economic sense.

Since UTC Power began selling its fuel cell “power plants” in the early 1990s, the company has installed them in more than 19 countries and in more than 300 installations.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure