Stockton’s Fuel Cell Experience

Energy Studies

Stockton’s Fuel Cell Experience

Stockton wanted to evaluate the suitability of fuel cell technology for a medium sized campus. Anticipated advantages of operating a fuel cell on campus included:

  • Avoiding cost of power delivery
  • Reducing peak electrical demand
  • Reliability and support of emergency power needs
  • Educational value as demonstration project
  • Utilization of “waste” heat

In 2002, the College conducted a feasibility study and decided to install a gas fired fuel cell. It was brought on line in March of 2003 and taken out of service in May of 2008. The fuel cell was purchased with financial support from the NJ Board of Public Utilities, the US Department of Energy and NJ HEPS (Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability). Gas fired fuel cell technology was supported by NJ and the federal government as an early part of the projected future “hydrogen economy” and as part of a move towards distributed (rather than centralized) generation of electricity.

The first step in fuel cell operation is to “reform” natural gas into hydrogen. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of the hydrogen generation. Hydrogen then combines with oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water vapor. Some of the heat is captured for boiler and domestic hot water use, but not all of it. The best heat utilization will be attained if a fuel cell is designed into the associated buildings before construction. This project was a retrofit, and the location was selected based on visibility to the public as well as on proximity to heat using equipment. AC power was connected to campus distribution system through an inverter. Availability (on a quarterly basis) ranged from 73% to 98.7%, averaging about 90%. This was less than anticipated. 

Lecture tours for classes and a student internship have been offered. Public education programs associated with the fuel cell included an inaugural event with a technical session and luncheon which was attended by 120 people from NJ government agencies, architectural & engineering firms, other colleges and universities, and the general public. Architects received AIA credit for attendance. Additional less formal visits were hosted later.
The fuel cell was not used for emergency electrical power because stringent measures would have been needed to prevent feedback into the campus grid during an outage. Again, this would have been easier if the fuel cell was part of the original construction plans.

Stockton’s fuel cell was sold back to the manufacturer. The relative prices of gas and electricity had changed, reducing the financial advantage. The annual maintenance contract cost more than tripled since the fuel cell went into service. Rebuilding the reformer (“stack”) at the five or six year mark would have been very costly. Major construction and expansion is planned for the College and some of that activity is already underway. A 150,000 GSF Campus Center is being constructed where the fuel cell stood. Moving the fuel cell to another location on campus would have cost more than $100,000.

In summary, the College did not fully achieve the projected cost savings due to lower availability than expected, a change in relative prices of energy, limited heat recovery and high maintenance costs. The future of this technology will depend on relative fuel costs and major reductions in capital and maintenance costs. Gas fired fuel cells will continue to be purchased by users (like biotechnology centers or emergency command posts) with exceptional needs for non-interruptible power.