Our Fuel-Cell Future

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 01, 2012

SOUTH WINDSOR, CONNECTICUT—Unlike sausage, it actually is a good idea to see pasta being made. I am wearing a chef’s apron, a hair net and a beard net, and I’m on the main floor of Carla’s Pasta. Started as a mom-and-pop business (well, mostly a “mom” business) in 1968, today it occupies 66,000 square feet, employs more than 150 people, and supplies 20,000 restaurants in New England alone with, among many other things, gnocchi, ravioli and pre-cooked pasta sheets.

You actually do want to see pasta being made! Here’s cheese ravioli on its way to a restaurant near you. (Jim Motavalli photo)You haven’t lived until you’ve seen little green-and-white striped raviolis rolling down a conveyer belt, dropping into chilled water, then proceeding down the line to final bagging and boxing. Our tour was conducted by the genial Sergio Squatrito, vice president for operations and founder Carla’s son. He’s also a big supporter of Car Talk, a major supporter of renewable energy, offers vegan manicotti, and was extremely interested in my test car, a Chevy Volt. If he buys one, he’d park it next to his vintage ’69 Fiat 500.

Sergio Squatrito and his company’s $2 million investment: A zero-emission fuel cell. (Jim Motavalli photo)Carla’s Pasta has just taken a big step—today, a solid percentage of its electricity comes from the 300-kilowatt fuel cell that sits on a concrete pad adjacent to the linguini works. Squatrito took us into the boiler room and showed us one of two big hot water/building heating units he was able to shut down because the natural gas-fired fuel cell has been on the job for the last month.

Fuel cells aren’t cheap, especially on the scale that can run commercial businesses. The 300-kw unit is relatively small, but it cost more than $2 million, which Carla’s paid for with a state development authority bridge loan and a $750,000 grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund.

Fuel cells certainly aren’t new—they were invented in the mid-19th century, and Apollo moon missions took them into orbit. Essentially, they’re little chemical factories that turn hydrogen into electricity and water. You can use them in electric cars in place of a battery, and automakers have been building very expensive test cars for decades. But costs have plummeted as the technology has improved, and that’s why Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and Daimler are all promising to deliver commercial fuel-cell vehicles by 2015.

It may not look like it now, but fuel-cell cars could be a big deal. Tom Sullivan of Lumber Liquidators is trying to build a “hydrogen highway” on the east coast, and the California network is evolving (despite Arnold Schwarzenegger’s efforts being derailed by budget cuts). And now, in an interesting development, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which polices air quality in a challenged state, last week voted unanimously for a big ramp-up of its clean car program. The plan envisions 500,000 “zero emission” cars by 2025, a category that includes large numbers of fuel-cell vehicles as well as battery electrics. In one CARB scenario, there would be 163,300 fuel-cell cars in California by 2025. But will there be fueling stations (a cool $1-$2 million each) around the state when the cars start to roll out?

CARB thought of that, and added a provision that requires oil companies (from BP, Chevron and Shell to Exxon Mobil) to install hydrogen fueling at gas stations as certain levels of on-the-road fuel-cell vehicles are achieved. It’s a good thing, because right now Los Angeles has only two stations, and Daimler (for one) has cars stuck in parking lots waiting for a larger infrastructure. But the oil companies aren’t happy. At the CARB hearing, Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association trade group, threatened legal action over the provision. “We strongly oppose the clean fuels outlet requirement,” she said.

Daimler’s B-Class F-Cell hydrogen car: Piling up in Los Angeles. (Daimler photo)Stationary cells have already developed into a strong market. I also visited FuelCellEnergy, which made the Carla’s Pasta unit, in nearby Torrington. It’s a full-scale manufacturing plant, with 500 employees, loading docks, a staff cafeteria, and signs boasting of accident-free work days—exactly the kind of thing that President Obama wants to see “in-sourced” in America and not exported abroad. FCE, in business since 1969 and in commercial production since 2003, now has 180 megawatts worth of fuel cells installed or in backlog. They’ve generated 900 million kilowatt-hours of electricity.

One FCE plant in California is operated by Gil’s Onions, which sells the vegetable in fresh, pre-sliced form. This operation left a lot of outer skins as waste and because decomposing matter gives off methane, Gil’s was running into air-permitting problems in the state (which has the toughest regulations in the country).

FCE’s Kurt Goddard explained to me that fuel cells are a great zero-emission power solution for cities, because a) they don’t take up much space (even a big one needs only approximately a tennis court) or b) run afoul of any clean air laws. There’s one in downtown Los Angeles, where a nuke, a coal plant, or even a natural gas operation would not be welcome. They’re also incredibly quiet. I stood in the control room of the Carla’s Pasta cell and there wasn’t much more than a minor electronic hum. I was told by Chip Bottone, FCE’s CEO, “Clean, efficient and reliable fuel cell power generation offers our clients a cost-effective path to address their power needs and environmental stewardship simultaneously.” A two-fer, as it were.

Some of these plants are really, really big. FCE specializes in one megawatt units (with approximately the generating capacity of a large wind turbine), but some installations have multiple units and give power plants a run for their money. South Korea is a big supporter of fuel cells, and it recently put in an 11.2-megawatt unit, a record. Universities are big supporters of on-campus fuel cells, and the largest U.S. installation is an FCE cell that is part of a clean energy micro grid at the University of California, San Diego, and it’s 2.8 megawatts.

Goddard and John Sprainitis gave me a tour of FCE’s Torrington plant. There were a lot of workers rushing around on forklifts. In fact, it looked not unlike the pasta factory. My favorite room was final assembly, where a unit was approaching completion, with its enormous weatherproof cover hovering on a lift and waiting to be dropped in place.

Making hydrogen fuel cells in Connecticut, at FuelCellEnergy. (Jim Motavalli photo)Yes, in many cases these plants (some of which are 30 feet high and weigh 120,000 pounds) are shipped, via truck, as complete units. But overseas locations such as South Korea often get fuel cells in kit form—I saw one boxed up for a steel mill, and it wouldn’t make economic sense to send a big steel structure to a steel mill.

Hydrogen is no longer a future fuel. The Oregon-based ClearEdge just announced a $500 million deal to sell 50 megawatts worth of fuel cell power plants to the Austrian company Güssing Renewable Energy GmbH by 2020. That’s foreign capital flowing into the United States from a clean energy investment. What’s not to like?

Here’s a video look at Carla’s Pasta and its brand-new fuel cell:

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