Fuel cell power plants are used in diverse ways across the United States

April 20, 2018

U.S. fuel cell power plant capacity, as explained in the article text

At the end of 2016, the United States had 56 large-scale fuel cell generating units greater than 1 megawatt (MW), totaling 137 megawatts (MW) of net summer capacity. Most of this capacity (85%) has come online since 2013. Fuel cells collectively provided 810,000 megawatthours (MWh) of electricity in 2016, representing 0.02% of total U.S. electricity generation.

Fuel cell systems typically produce hydrogen gas from hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas using thermochemical processes such as steam reforming. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity and water. Although nearly 85% of fuel cell capacity in 2016 used natural gas, fuels such as landfill gas or biogas from the decomposition of sewage at wastewater treatment plants were also used, potentially allowing the generation from fuel cells to qualify for renewable portfolio standards in certain states.

Fuel cell power plants are sometimes used for backup power at small facilities such as hospitals. They can also be used to operate data centers for large private corporations that have committed to consuming 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.

Commercial and industrial sector fuel cell power plants are sometimes used in combined heat and power application, meaning they produce heat and steam in addition to electricity. Overall combined heat and power applications made up 26 MW of the 137 MW operating in 2016; the rest provided only electricity.

Fuel cell capacity factors in 2016 ranged significantly, reflecting a wide operating range for these fuel cells. Some were operated infrequently: 8 of the 50 plants in operation for all of 2016 had a capacity factor of 30% or lower, likely reflecting limited-use applications such as peak shaving or back-up capacity. Some were operated more frequently: about 25% of fuel cell generators had capacity factors exceeding 85%, likely reflecting primary power supply applications.

Fuel cells with combined heat and power applications typically had much lower capacity factors than those that delivered electricity only, with median capacity factors of 44% and 81%, respectively.

U.S. fuel cell power plant capacity factors, as explained in the article text

In 2016, 36% of total U.S. fuel cell capacity was in California, which has a number of incentives for distributed generators such as fuel cells. Fuel cell generating units in Connecticut accounted for 27% of U.S. 2016 fuel cell capacity, and plants in Delaware accounted for 22%. Both states allow fuel cells with nonrenewable fuel to meet requirements for renewable portfolio standards. The remaining fuel cell power plants are located in North Carolina and Utah.

Principal contributor: Fred Mayes

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