Studies: Fuel Cells - The First National Bank of Omaha
Generation: Fuel Cells Deliver High-Quality Power in Critical Applications
a Glance Natural Gas Fuel Cells:
- High reliability/availability,
- High energy
conversion efficiency (up to 80 percent with cogenerated heat recovery)
- Clean power;
by-products of water, CO2, and useful heat
- Quiet, trouble-free
operation requiring no air conditioning
- Fuel flexibility
(natural gas, propane, biogas, landfill gas)
- Modular design
- Rapid load
Sir William Grove introduced the concept of fuel cells in 1839, when he theorized
that the process of electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen) might
be reversed. The term "fuel cell" was coined in 1889, but 19th century
technological limitations and the advent of the internal combustion engine delayed
further research for many decades.
the early 1960s, the U.S. National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA)
supported advances in fuel cell technology, and all manned American space missions
have used fuel cells to provide electricity and drinking water for the astronauts.
a natural gas fuel cell power plant has three sections: 1) a fuel processor, which
reforms the gas to enrich its hydrogen content; 2) a power section, which produces
direct current (DC) electricity and heat by combining the hydrogen with oxygen
from the air; and 3) a power conditioner, which converts the DC electricity to
alternating current (AC) and also virtually eliminates voltage spikes and harmonic
distortions. Individual cells are arranged in "stacks" to provide the
required level of power.
electrochemical process, ions move through an electrolyte between the negatively
charged side (cathode) and the positive (anode). Catalysts facilitate reactions
between the electrolyte and the anode or cathode. Scientists categorize fuel cells
by the type of electrolyte used. The most fully developed technology uses phosphoric
acid electrolyte, though progress is also evident using molten carbonate and solid
oxide electrolytes and proton exchange membranes.
can identify with the frustration of a computer failure, whether it happens at
work or at home. Once your screen goes blank or your computerized machine stops
running unexpectedly, you know you're in for some headaches. That's why fuel cells
- one of many distributed generation technologies - are capturing a market in
critical applications that require a reliable, high-quality power source. Fuel
cells generate electricity at the customer site through an electrochemical process,
to high efficiency and low emissions, fuel cells deliver excellent power quality,
and redundant fuel cell systems can match the reliability requirements of the
most advanced computers. Today, many manufacturers are working on a variety of
fuel cell technologies ranging in development status from commercially available
24/7 Information Age
Nearly all businesses and industries now depend on computers for their operations,
often their most critical processes. Industries requiring reliable, high-quality
power for critical computer applications include silicon wafer fabrication; chemicals,
plastics, and food processing; and financial operations such as banks, insurance
companies, and credit card transaction processing. Many of these corporations
do business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, around the world. About 85% of corporate
information resides in mainframe computers and large servers. As the Internet
continues to grow around the clock, web hosting and telecommunications facilities
are also accelerating demand for uninterruptible electricity.
costing thousands of dollars a minute, U.S. businesses are losing billions each
year due to computer failures caused by electricity problems. It takes as little
as 8/1000ths of a second to crash a computer system, often destroying valuable
data. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report titled Making Connections
power quality and reliability are likely to get worse, not better, as deregulation
of the electric industry proceeds.
Until recently, businesses with critical computer needs have invested in either
uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems to condition the electricity coming
from the utility grid, or batteries and standby generators to supply power onsite
when the grid fails. Most UPS systems have an "availability" of 99.9
to 99.99%, meaning the equipment is available to operate for that percentage of
the time. But even these levels are inadequate for computers. New servers can
operate up to 99.999% of the time, and high-end mainframes feature up to 99.9999%
availability. These percentage figures are frequently referred to as "nines"
- UPS systems reach three to four nines, while computers reach five to six nines.
The catch is that each nine represents an order of magnitude, so the "uninterruptible,"
conditioned power source is 10 to 1,000 times more likely to fail than the computers
Relies on Fuel Cell System
For round-the-clock processing, The First National Bank of Omaha is the nation's
seventh-largest credit card processor and also provides data processing services
for dozens of smaller banks. After a battery-powered backup system failed during
a power outage in 1993, the bank decided to install an ultra-reliable power system,
incorporating four fuel cells, at its state-of-the-art Technology Center in downtown
Omaha. The PC25™ natural gas-powered fuel cells, each producing 200 kW,
were manufactured by ONSI Corp. (South Windsor, CT).
Technology Center resembles a high-tech beehive honeycombed with computers and
servers. Designed expressly as a data center with tornado-hardened construction,
the 200,000-square-foot, three-story complex houses hundreds of employees who
process millions of dollars daily in checks and credit card transactions. An hour
of computer downtime would cost the bank roughly $6 million, including good will.
gas fuel cell system, supplied and operated by Sure Power Corp. (Danbury, CT),
offers an availability of 99.9999%, exceeding that of the bank's computer system.
"The reliability of the 'six 9s' computer-grade electricity that Sure Power
delivers isn't a luxury for us," says Dennis C. Hughes, Director of Property
Management for First National Buildings, Inc. "It's a critical difference
over existing power arrangements that will substantially increase our computer
uptime. The result is a tremendous leap in our competitive advantage. With Sure
Power, First National can raise our customer's service expectations while generating
The Sure Power
system requires minimal maintenance (36-hour annual service shutdown for each
fuel cell) and runs without technicians at the site - instead, more than 1,000
parameters are remotely monitored. Diagnostics and early-warning alarms allow
time for trained technicians to arrive on site and make repairs before anything
goes wrong. Also, the fuel cell system can be sited outdoors without air conditioning
in ambient temperatures of -40º to 104ºF (-40º to 40ºC); some
cooling and exhaust were provided to the bank's indoor system.
Utilities District (Omaha), the local gas utility, was involved in the project
from the beginning and offered financial incentives for the fuel cell installation,
according to Dave DeBoer, Utilization Engineer. "The quality of power this
system provides is second to none," he says. "The use of fuel cells
for distributed generation increases our market infiltration into areas we were
not able to crack before. It is also more economically feasible for us to purchase
gas for a level, round-the-clock base load." The utility is exploring other
high-quality power customers and hopes to include applications in the residential
of the four 200-kW natural gas fuel cells are the primary source of power for
the Technology Center's critical computer load of 340 kW. The other two redundant
fuel cells generate 400 kW of excess electricity, which reduces the bank's utility
demand charges. A total of 700,000 Btu/hr of heat is recovered in the form of
hot water and is used in the winter to heat the building and to melt ice and snow
outdoors, using special coils built into the sidewalks. During the summer, dry-coolers
dissipate the heat.
At the bank's
request, two 1,250-kW Cummins-Onan diesel engine-powered generator sets were incorporated
and are used on site for life safety support within the system; a 10-day supply
of diesel fuel is stored nearby. In the case of fuel cell failure, rotary equipment
- two 5-ton steel flywheels - made by Piller, Inc. (the U.S. subsidiary of a German
company) can supply electricity for 30-45 seconds until the engine/generators
can carry the load.
for the fuel cells is supplied through two mains fed from different gas distribution
sources, and two separate electric utility feeders were installed from different
substations to provide the building's normal (non-critical) electrical service.
Power loss to critical loads would require the loss of three fuel cells, two diesel
generators, and two utility feeders, according to Thomas J. Ditoro, P.E., Electrical
Project Engineer, HDR Architecture, Inc. (Omaha, NE). HDR designed the building
and engineered the electrical system.
The Sure Power system was delivered to the bank's Technology Center in December
1998 and began operating in May 1999. "It has out-performed even our wildest
dreams," says Hughes. The bank is expanding its processing services to smaller
banks using the fuel cell system's high level of availability as a marketing tool.
As designed, the system can accommodate planned growth through 2002 plus an additional
30% increase in load. Also, the installation has become a showcase, attracting
interest from engineers and businesses around the world.
advantage of the Sure Power system is its low emissions - so low that California
has exempted it from air quality regulations. The Omaha bank's system produces
40-50% less greenhouse gases than a traditional UPS system that draws its power
from the electric grid. This reduction would apply to other regions where electricity
is produced from coal or other non-hydro/renewable sources and where the customer
has a use for at least half of the fuel cell's heat.
Center has been operating its fuel cells at 75% capacity because of a high concentration
of nitrogen (8%) in the natural gas supply. A membrane system was recently installed
to reduce the gas's nitrogen content by 2.5%. Over a one-year period (May 10,
1999-May 10, 2000), the fuel cells consumed a total of 47.73 million scf of natural
gas (average of 1362 scf/hr per fuel cell, vs. 1900 scf/hr at full load) and produced
4950 MW of electricity. The overall efficiency of the fuel cell system (including
heat recovery) was 54.1%.
a life cycle cost analysis by Ditoro, the fuel cell system is slightly less expensive
than a parallel redundant UPS system over a 20-year life, even though it has a
higher installed cost.
Sure Power offers modular fuel cell systems in sizes from 400 kW to 20+ MW with
long-term service contracts covering all but the natural gas fuel. The company
can also provide financing and installation. Preliminary discussions are taking
place with a major East Coast telecommunications company and a medical research
facility; each are considering a 2-MW installation. Talks with various potential
customers could result in orders exceeding 40 MW.