Fuel cells used to be a favorite promising technology for many renewable energy advocates. They offered the possibility of extracting electrical energy from chemical fuels without burning them, reducing emissions and greatly increasing efficiency. About 10 years ago the fuel cell buzz started to die down a bit, but the technology hasn't gone anywhere. Far from it: On Wednesday, fuel cell industry dreadnought Ballard Power Systems announced it's teaming up with the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe in Humboldt County to build a first-of-its-kind biogas fuel cell system.
The Blue Lake Rancheria is in timber country a few miles east of Arcata. Waste from timber harvesting is in abundant local supply. A 175-kilowatt "ClearGen" fuel cell system will convert that logging waste to essentially carbon-neutral power.
The system will consist of two components: a gasification unit that will convert the wood products in the timber waste to hydrogen by heating the material in the absence of oxygen, a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis produces a gas rich in hydrogen, which will then be further purified and the resulting hydrogen fed into Ballard's ClearGen proton exchange membrane fuel cell.
A proton exchange membrane fuel cell combines hydrogen fuel with atmospheric oxygen to create power. It's the same chemical reaction that occurs when hydrogen is burned, but most of the energy produced in a fuel cell is captured as electrical power rather than heat. The resulting exhaust is water vapor.
Fuel cells do create some heat, and a heat exchanger will be used on the Blue Lake Rancheria to put some of that fuel cell waste heat in use warming a swimming pool. The 175 kilowatts of electrical power produced by the fuel cell will provide base load energy for the Tribe.
"The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe is committed to renewable power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the energy efficiency of our facilities," said Arla Ramsey, the Tribe's vice chairperson, in a press release. "Biomass-to-fuel cell power is an excellent match for our community and our region, and we see tremendous potential for deployments beyond our own facilities."
The plant will be the first of its kind. Biomass from timber waste isn't a panacea: whether it's environmentally benign depends in large part on the logging practices that produce the waste. There are plans afoot in Nevada, for instance, to ramp up biomass energy prooduction by clearcutting pinyon-juniper forests and similar woodlands on public lands under the argument that such trees are "encroaching" on rangeland. Some of those trees have been "encoraching" for 300 years or more, stretching the definition of "renewable." But the pyrolysis and fuel cell setup coming to the Blue Lake Rancheria offers some promise for situations where a certain amount of plant waste is both sustainable and inevitable.