While natural gas is already used to power buildings of all types, a new study shows that adding fuel cells could provide reliable power outputs while improving facility energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The cost benefit analysis from researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory shows that assuming fuel cell lifespans can be improved through ongoing research and enough systems are produced to reach economies of scale, the cost of natural gas solid oxide fuel cells to power facilities such as hospitals and big box retail stores could compete with conventional systems.
The fuel cells, which produce electricity by oxidizing fuel electrochemically, are made of ceramic materials and stacked together to reach the needed power output. The design from PNNL includes anode recycling, steam reforming, and pressurization to improve the efficiency of the system. Additionally, the study shows that the fuel cell stack system would cost almost 1/3 less to build than a traditional natural gas plant producing the same amount of power.
The analysis also shows that by calculating the benefits of distributed generation from fuel cells, the price per kWh could be brought down as low as 5.3 cents, over 18% lower than the projected price of 6.5 cents per kWh associated with conventional natural gas. With current fuel cell stacks only lasting about two years, the researchers will look to improve their lifecycle so the systems could last at least six to eight years to stay competitive.