Pittsburgh Utility Experiments with NatGas Fuel Cells in Homes
An intriguing concept: What if you could generate your own electricity for your own home–without big, ugly solar panels plastered on your roof, or without an unsightly (and loud) wind mill stuck in your yard? What if all you need is a natural gas pipeline connected to your home. What’s that? You don’t want to contribute to man-made global warming by *burning* natural gas? No problem. This nifty little invention, called a fuel cell, uses natural gas in a *chemical* reaction to create electricity. These types of fuel cells have been around for a while, but what’s new is that they are now getting good enough to be commercially viable. Peoples Natural Gas, the largest natural gas distribution company in PA, providing natural gas service to approximately 700,000 customers in western PA, West Virginia, and Kentucky, has cut a deal with a Westmoreland County fuel-cell manufacturer to put 100 test systems in customer’s homes to create electricity at home. It’s an experiment. If all goes well, more will be deployed. Remember when cable companies first began offering internet access, then telephone access? Yeah, electric utilities and electric generators might want to look over their shoulder. They may get some serious competition! If natgas fuel cells ever take off for the residential market, demand for natural gas would be ginormous. Hence our interest. Is this technology anywhere near mainstream yet? No. But let’s keep a close eye on this potential new market for Marcellus/Utica gas. It may happen sooner than you think…
A partnership between Peoples Gas and the innovation of a Westmoreland County fuel-cell manufacturer could end up changing the game for electricity production.
Watt Fuel Cell Corp. is putting the finishing touches on the first several small in-home fuel cells that will use natural gas to create electricity in the home, all from systems that are about the size of home air conditioners. The units will be delivered to Peoples, who will use them in beta testing for several months beginning in the fourth quarter.
Peoples and Watt got together last September after Peoples learned of the innovations being done in Mount Pleasant. Watt, which creates 7-inch fuel cells using 3-D printing and chemistry, wasn’t even thinking of the home electricity market. Its first products, which are also about to be delivered, are for fuel cell systems for the recreational vehicle and marine market.
“This is very clean and quiet, and it works,” said Peoples Gas President and CEO Morgan O’Brien, who traveled to Mount Pleasant the day after hearing about it because he was so excited by the opportunities.
Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that create electricity using fuel such as natural gas or propane, and the first ones were created in the 1800s. More recently, NASA used fuel cells on Apollo moon launches. But the idea of bringing them to a home market hasn’t been put into widespread use.
Caine Finnerty, president and CEO of Watt Fuel Cell, sees a lot of opportunity for his company’s fuel cells, which are much smaller than others on the market. Watt, which recently closed an $11 million funding round, has deals with RV and marine manufacturers, which will sell the fuel cell units with their new vehicle or watercraft and use propane. The first shipments were due at the end of August.
Watt came to Mount Pleasant in 2014 when it acquired Pittsburgh Electric Engines Inc., a fuel-cell manufacturer that had been spun out of Westinghouse Electric Co. and settled in a former glass manufacturing plant on the outskirts of the Westmoreland County borough. Watt was based in Port Washington, Long Island, at the time, but Westmoreland County officials’ tenacity and the strength of the economic development package led the firm to leave New York for western Pennsylvania.
Finnerty said the company ramped up in its new location, remodeling and setting up a manufacturing center in the back of its offices. It made its first fuel cell 13 weeks after groundbreaking, he said. And with the current contracts, as well as the pilot program with Peoples, Watt it about to make a lot more.
Finnerty said Watt reached an agreement with Peoples soon after proving that its technology could make electricity via natural gas in the home.
O’Brien said that Watt’s technology takes what’s abundant in western Pennsylvania — the cheap, reliable energy source that is natural gas — and mixes in innovation and clean energy. Add the power-generating capability of Watt’s fuel cells, its ability to exist along with other sources like a solar panel and a battery to store energy, and you’ve got a potent mix. And that’s not to mention the opportunity for further collaboration with combined heat and power.
“We could take solar panels, the fuel cell, the battery and create enough electricity to power a home,” O’Brien said. “The environmental benefits are significant. Where we’re hoping to get to is the business case, that it actually becomes economical, that it’s cheaper in the long run to do this.” O’Brien has since joined Watt’s board of directors.
Both O’Brien and Finnerty believe it will become economical at some point.
“It’s not there today but at some point it will be,” O’Brien said.
Neither discussed how much it will cost. Watt Fuel Cell, which has been the recipient of private equity investment, has been pre-revenue, but that’s going to change with the shipments. The company currently employs 48.
Next up for Peoples is getting the first 100 test systems up and running in homes.
Peoples’ investment allowed Watt to speed up its plans in the power market, and it’s in talks with other utilities as well as other uses that could include the oil and natural gas industry, which would have use for a propane or methane-fueled electricity generation. But what you won’t see any time soon is being able to see a Watt Fuel Cell in your local store, or being able to buy one of the systems.
Watt is focused now on the business-to-business model, through deals with the RV and marine manufacturers, and Peoples.
“We’re confident we’ll get there,” O’Brien said. “We’re just taking the baby steps for now.”*
*Pittsburgh (PA) Business Times (Aug 31, 2018) – Peoples, Westmoreland firm aim to make cheap electricity from natural gas