It can be easy to dismiss many of the energy breakthroughs you hear about these days. Lockheed Martin just announced it may have come up with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, but on closer inspection some analysts are saying there is not yet evidence they will make it beyond the lengthy history of false starts in that technology. Other clean energy breakthroughs, like super-efficient solar cells, will take years to get beyond a science lab and onto the market.
But for nearly a year, a large-scale power plant has been up and running that has lived up to the expectations many of those technologies promise: containing costs, increasing reliability and lowering greenhouse gas emissions for its users.
And it can be found in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut.
FuelCell Energy’s 15 megawatt plant, at 1501 State St. — just around the corner from the Cesar A. Batalla Elementary School and a Chase Bank branch — now powers approximately 15,000 Bridgeport homes with no disruption to civic life. It is the largest fuel cell installation in North America.
The plant works by chemically converting hydrocarbons like natural gas or methane into electricity and water. Besides coming with ultra-low emissions, fuel cells lack the intermittency problem that wind and solar suffer from — the wind isn't always blowing, and the sun isn't always shining.
The idea of using fuel cells to handle a large population's electricity needs has been around for decades, but until recently proved too expensive to advance beyond pilot projects. Now, as demand for clean energy has climbed, natural gas prices stabilized, and areas like Bridgeport come to grips with aging infrastructure, the availability of financing and subsidies for such projects has ramped up.
“The activity level has dramatically increased,” CEO Chip Bottone told Fusion. “It just took time for people to say, ‘Do this.’”
Approved in 2008, the project ran headfirst into the recession, delaying financing until December 2012.
But the plant was up and running just a year later. Bottone said fuel cells require fewer permits than most other kind of power plants because of their lack of pollutants and noise. The project cost $65 million, and the company picked up the tab for patching the plant into Bridgeport’s industrial-era electric grid. It sits on top of a 1.5-acre former brownfield site, which FuelCell cleaned up. The plant is owned by Virginia-based utility Dominion.
FuelCell has two other generators in Connecticut: at a Pepperidge Farm baking facility in Bloombfield, and on the campus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. The CCSU unit has saved approximately $100,000 a year and cut their emissions in half by 2025, FuelCell said. The company's largest plant, in Korea's fourth-largest city, can power 60,000 homes.
"If you said it seems like a good urban solution, I would absolutely concur," Bottone said.
The broader fuel cell industry has struggled since the recession. FuelCell itself has until recently been operating at a loss, and another Connecticut fuel cell firm filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Elon Musk has decried fuel cells as “fool cells,” arguing they are too costly. According to the Energy Information Administration, a typical fuel cell plant remains, for now, among the most expensive ways of generating electricity for homes and businesses.
Bottone acknowledged that their projects are usually more competitive in European and Asia, where the cost of natural gas is higher, allowing a utility to take advantage of the efficiencies of a fuel cell generator. While low natural gas prices in the U.S. help make fuel cell projects competitive, they make conventional natural gas plants even more so.
But FuelCell has said can it offer electricity for as little as $0.135 per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. That would make it as competitive with electricity prices in Hawaii and Alaska, according to Greentech Media (GTM). NRG Energy, one of America's largest power plant retailers, recently agreed to market and finance FuelCell’s generators for its own existing customers. GTM’s Chris Nelder says FuelCell is now within reach of being in the black. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited the Bridgeport site earlier this week, praising the project as a reliable clean energy solution.
Bottone says FuelCell is continuing to market their plants around the globe. Within the U.S., their focus is mostly on markets on the East and West coasts, which tend to have larger population densities. He said a fuel cell plant would fit well in Southern California, which is about to lose a major source of power as the San Onofre nuclear plant shuts down.
“Utilities are just now catching up to speed,” he said. “Frankly they didn’t know we could pull it off.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.