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

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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.


Smoke from an approaching wildfire can be seen hanging over a housing development in Southern California. By StacieStauffSmith Photos/Shutterstock.com

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.

California microgrids

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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  1. Brady F Fennell says:

    Your way ahead of the curve, AJ.

    Fuel Cell technology reminds me of the technology transition that took place in the mid to late 80″s from transacting business remotely from inside of a the hot, stale air pay telephone booth to using a car phone in the comfort of your air conditioned vehicle on the way to you next appointment. Quite a difference!

    The old school energy generation mentality is still in love with the combustion engine concept even with the sustainability issues the world is currently facing. These PEM Fuel Cells will rock their world soon especially with earlier adopters like you leading the charge. . It’s a matter of consumer education which will DRIVE the demand.
    Cummins has already hedged its bets with the acquisition of Hydrogenics up in Canada which can use GREEN Hydrogen.

    The good folks in Puerto Rico are going to be all over this technology when they get that 13 billion from President Trump and the Republican controlled US Senate.! I ‘ll believe this when the funds are dispersed rather than allocated.

  2. Brady Fennell, thank you for your kind words. We are excited about what’s to come.

    I wanted to make a couple of clarifying remarks. as it relates to the article. Instant On and Aris Energy are working together closely to integrate fuel cells in to microgrids and the mentioned residential SolidPower “BlueGen” fuel cell in Long Island, NY that recently received its interconnect permit was an Aris Energy project. Aris installed and worked through the interconnect process with PSEG-LI. It is because of this news that we are able to continue to work with our utility partners to follow suit with interconnection of fuel cells across the country so that we can add this to our residential solar microgrids. We are excited and eager to replicate that experience in our microgrid market.

    The article also suggests that the designation of the fuel cell as a “gas appliance” was the result of the utility interconnect permit. I was also reminded by the Aris team that the gas appliance designation, which we believe will be accepted by many local jurisdictions, was the result of the KIWA testing and certification work and not directly related to the electric utility. This is a fine point, but we aim to be technically accurate so that utilities across the country can see that this is not a difficult approval scenario since the interconnection to the home is through a UL certified inverter.

    We are excited to integrate fuel cells in our advanced solar microgrids to provide resiliency and redundancy to families, communities and businesses.

    AJ Perkins, President, Instant On, LLC

  3. On behalf of my firm Aris Energy Solutions – we thank our partner InstantOn and AJ Perkins – for his introduction as we collaborate to enhance Microgrid solutions, while mitigating intermittency of Solar. We extend thanks to Microgrid Knowledge for its tireless efforts educating the customers & redirecting SME’s – in this case how Fuel Cells – modular small capacity fuel cell based micro-cogen will prove a preferred solution, when optimizing power delivery/resiliency for California customers! Moreover, in addition to PEMs, Solid Oxide Fuel Cells such as these featured can operate on a Hydrogen Blend today on route towards 100% H2. We aim to underscore the solution facilitated by Microgrids. The key variable towards widespread deployment lays with Utilities – acknowledging grid interconnection via hybrid invertor, which performs a “symphony conductor role” amid a host of DERs. Thus, Value of DER is extended via modular fuel cells whether targeted demand [kW] loads for large Commercial Applications, or other buildings too small for large capacity systems. What’s more, modular offering targets Single Family Residential / Small Multifamily and Small Businesses as these units can very well produce Electric Power for the home/small business for the entire year, with excess to sell back to the grid – fostering “Controllable Dispatch” for utilities addressing areas of grid strain. Perhaps new business model when storing H2 vs. Diesel Fuel in the near term. The point being FCs will future-proof gas distribution infrastructure – but for right now, Micro/Nanogrids suggest no more extended outages due to weather anomalies, pre-emptive shutdowns or grid relay failures. If 2020 has taught us anything – critical power is needed where we live and work – ALL OF US!

    Steve Almeida Jr., Director Fuel Cells /Clean Heat & Power, Aris Energy Solutions LLC
    Fuel Cell Hydrogen Energy Association – Board Member

  4. “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.”

    Interesting, it seems that this will be a “push back” for residential customers to NOT go all electric as California has mandated their home all electrification dream. Even IF the fuel cell wasn’t part of the package the advanced home energy management system sounds like a game changing technology addition that could be used for things like arbitrage, taking both or off peak gas or off peak electricity to use to charge the battery pack to use the cheap energy for later use makes the system flexibility to future bad policy or utility usury less of a burden to the home owner. I believe with just battery storage, it has proven time and again, when one can stack revenue streams from assets, they pay for themselves sooner than later.

  5. I don’t think it takes an engineer to know that the all electric home is little more than gov. getting in bed with the power companies. Gas is far cheaper to heat your home with and cook with in all but very few areas in this country if not everywhere. Another example of CA in bed with the power companies, their ads telling the consumer to un-plug devices when not in use. How about mandating that devices actually turn off. Batteries could easily maintain memory, last setting and clocks in these devices, there is no reason to have them powered on in sleep mode all the time. How many thousands of KWh would be saved if devices actually turned off.

    • I’ve been pondering the battle between Edison and Westinghouse between A.C. and D.C. If you look at what’s being sold now-a-days, a lot of Energy Star products are actually taking 120VAC or 240VAC and converting this to a D.C. buss voltage to power electronics in all kinds of home devices. Things like washing machines, inductive cook tops, air conditioning compressors and air handler house fans are all using some kind of rectifying A.C. to D.C. then switching out the D.C. to control the motor. What (if) there was a D.C. standard, like 120VDC and all appliances sockets used 120VDC to power the home. Then all one would need is a solar PV string array a large D.C. battery of 120VDC, string to battery charger. Cut out all of the complexity, what would the overall efficiency be with a on site D.C. to D.C. to D.C. powered home?