Wildfire Smoke Clouds Solar Panels in California Microgrids. Can Fuel Cells Help?

Sept. 21, 2020
Because some California microgrids aren’t producing enough solar energy due to smoke from wildfires, one microgrid developer is installing fuel cells as back up.

Because some California microgrids aren’t producing enough solar energy due to smoke from wildfires, one microgrid developer is installing fuel cells as back up.

AJ Perkins, president of Instant On, said that 25% of his microgrids in the Bay Area — which has been hit hard by wildfires — aren’t producing much solar because smoke is blocking out the sun. Solar production has dropped by about 95% in some cases.

“One of our systems was putting out 40 kWh a day for the summer, and right now they are looking at 1.65 KWh a day because of the smoke. Another one peaked out at 12 watts; that’s enough to light one LED bulb. They have to rely on the utility for power,” he said.

He’s working with homeowners and commercial clients to install BlueGen fuel cells to serve as backup in these instances. In fact, he has plans to begin using fuel cells in three veterans’ communities — nearly 4,000 homes — that each will have a microgrid. Under the pilot project, each home will have 5 kW of solar, 40 kWh of battery storage, a 1.5 kW fuel cell and advanced home energy management system. The project is now adding fuel cells.

A recent approval by PSEG Long Island of a 1.5 kW residential BlueGen fuel cell has Perkins and others in the fuel cell industry hopeful that more utilities will approve them for microgrids in homes.

The case for fuel cell safety

Instant On about a year ago installed a fuel cell based microgrid in a home on Long Island. But the company had to first prove that the 1.5 kW fuel cell wasn’t a danger to the grid, based on its use in Europe and other countries. Working with the Fuel Cell Hydrogen Energy Association and BlueGen, the company laid out the case for the safety of the fuel cell.

The fuel cell system includes a UL certified hybrid inverter that interfaces with the grid, said Lou Lombardozzi, director of engineering & project development at Aris Energy Solutions, which was involved in the project.

Utilities are generally worried about how fuel cells will interact with the grid, and how much power would be exported. Lombardozzi demonstrated that if there is any deviation in voltage and frequency of electricity, the fuel cell will isolate from the grid.

In August, PSEG Long Island approved the interconnection. As a result, the fuel cell can be treated like a gas appliance, which is how the BlueGen fuel cells are treated in other countries, said Lombardozzi. The BlueGen Fuel cell has the approval to be used in the US and other countries by KIWA, an organization in the Netherlands that provides testing and certification of fuel cells and other products.

Fuel cells also need to be approved by local jurisdictions.

“This is a major shift that could lay out the template for other utilities,” said Steve Almeida, board member, Fuel Cell Hydrogen Energy Association.

“The utility focus is the grid facing entity. The grid facing entity deals with distributed generation. With this fuel cell, we were able to successfully demonstrate that a hybrid inverter would sit between the fuel cell and the grid. A maximum amount of 1.5 KW is coming back into the grid. That doesn’t pose a danger,” he said.

Perkins and Almeida are hoping that other utilities will allow fuel cell interconnections to be routine filing procedures.

If utilities don’t view fuel cells as gas appliances, Instant On may be required to obtain a UL certification for the installation, which would be much more expensive and would have had to be repeated at every site, said Perkins.

In the Long Island example and also the planned Veterans’ communities, the fuel cell will be integrated with Instant On’s controller or “hub.” This allows the company to control loads, choosing essential loads to be served, when necessary.

Pros and cons of natural gas

The BlueGen fuel cell can cut carbon emissions in single family homes — which emit about 7.5 million tons of CO2 each year — by nearly 50% said Perkins. And the fuel cells provide resilience during power outages.

The fuel cells use natural gas and also emit waste heat that can be used to heat hot water.

The use of natural gas for fuel cells may create challenges in California, where several cities have passed ordinances to ban gas and fossil fuels. Berkeley was the first city in the US to ban natural gas pipes in new buildings in an effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Other California cities have followed. In Santa Clara, a judge recently ruled against a ban on non-renewable fuels.

Fuel cell in Long Island, courtesy Instant On

Making it replicable

Instant On is now working with SoCalGas, hoping to get more fuel cells installed in the company’s territory. The goal is to use on-bill financing to install the fuel cell microgrids in whole communities.

“My personal job in this is to get fuel cells into the US as rapidly as possible,” said Perkins. Fuel cells can power a house 24/7 and take less time to install than a solar microgrid, he said.

“We have brought together a smart meter, an essential loads panel and a circuit panel all in one. That can monitor electricity and gas in one meter. When we connect it, it will allow us to be part of the grid or to island,” said Perkins. Batteries, solar and other resources can be included in the fuel cell based microgrids. But the fuel cell is critical because it can continue operating even when smoke from wildfires blots out radiation to solar panels.

Smoke and solar don’t mix

Perkins says he was surprised when the output of his solar microgrids dropped so much due to the smoke, and is excited about providing fuel cells to ensure both residential and commercial customers can continue to operate, even when there’s smoke from wildfires.

“Who would have guessed that smoke would block the sun from all these solar microgrids?” he said.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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