County signs deal to test fuel cells

Friday, January 26, 2001

By BILL VIRGIN
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

King County has signed an agreement to install and test an electricity-generating fuel cell at its Renton sewage treatment plant, using gas that is the byproduct of waste-water cleaning as the feedstock.

The county has been working on a fuel cell project for months and had picked a supplier a year ago, only to have that company go out of business.

Yesterday's announcement comes as utilities and electricity consumers are scrambling to find new sources of electricity as shortages loom and prices climb.

Fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen, have been a promising technology for everything from cars and trucks to homes. The Northwest has been a hotbed of research for testing the concept.

Still to be proven is whether fuel cells can be as profitable as other forms of electricity generation.

Right now, they are not. But the expectation is that operating costs for fuel cells will drop as the technology is improved and units are mass produced. And because it's unlikely that power costs will go down anytime soon, the already-strong interest in fuel cells is increasing.

King County signed an agreement with FuelCell Energy Inc. of Danbury, Conn., to install a one-megawatt generator that would begin operating in the third quarter of 2002 in a two-year trial. FuelCell Energy and the county, which got an Environmental Protection Agency grant, are sharing the $19 million cost of the contract.

Gregory Bush, manager of technology assessment and resource recovery at the county's Department of Natural Resources, said he's not expecting fuel cells to be rushed to market because of the current energy crunch.

"It's still an emerging technology," he said. "In our opinion, we're still in the demonstration phase."

But the county does see sufficient promise to give it a try. In addition to assessing the reliability and operating cost of the fuel cell, Bush and others want to find out the compatibility of what's known as unscrubbed digester gas with the fuel cell.

Gas coming out of the waste-water treatment system is about 60 percent methane. The Renton plant currently runs that gas through a scrubber to produce pipeline-quality gas that is sold to Puget Sound Energy.

But if the unscrubbed gas can be run directly though the fuel cell, not only would the owner of a sewage treatment plant get electricity and heat, it would also avoid the cost of installing a scrubber which Bush calls "an expensive proposition."

FuelEnergy says there are 500 municipal wastewater treatment systems in the country, and even more industrial treatment plants that produce sufficient gas to power a fuel cell, so there is a significant market if the technology works.