In Part 1 of our Get To Know A Sector feature on Bloom Energy, we did a short overview of solid oxide fuel cells and noted SOFCs’ ability to serve as an “anchor” for microgrids.
The fuel cells’ hydrogen compatibility also offers a level of future-proofing, as the world moves towards zero-emission gas energy solutions. We finished by noting SOFCs’ biogas opportunity.
Better Solutions For Biogas
SOFCs have a major advantage over incumbent technologies when it comes to dealing with biogas. Biogas is typically cleaned into Renewable Natural Gas prior to injection into natural gas pipelines because it’s largely a mixture of CH4, CO2, H2O. Natural gas users don’t want to pay for those tag-along molecules, and their equipment is designed to run on pure methane. This is expensive, and due to scaling factors (discussed here), it wasn’t economic to perform this biogas-to-RNG conversion for many biogas producers (e.g. livestock growers).
SOFCs change the entire equation because they’re tolerant of those other molecules. We might call them “agnostic” to fuel feedstock quality. Yes, the lower starting concentration of CH4 will hit performance somewhat — but the electrical efficiency of a SOFC should still be competitive with, if not higher than, a combined-cycle natural gas turbine.
Bloom’s biogas diagram is shown below.
California’s proactive efforts to capture agricultural methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) and it’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (allowing Bloom’s customers to further monetize the electricity they generate) are two reasons for Bloom to have initiated work in the state. That and Bloom is headquartered there.
As OECD jurisdictions intensify efforts to reduce agricultural methane emissions, and as technology costs drop, we can expect SOFC deployments such as these to scale up.
A terrific opportunity also exists in the Majority World — “developing countries”, to use an older label. In many regions communities lack easy access to hydrocarbon infrastructure such as natural gas networks, so biogas-powered SOFCs can play an important role anchoring solar panel-fed microgrids. Bloom highlighted its first biogas project in India.
Often lost in the enthusiasm about low renewables costs — which are indeed wonderful — is that smaller deployments are more expensive per kWh and the substantial benefit of having some dispatchable (as opposed to intermittent) power. Academic literature consistently shows dispatchable power to have about 10x the economic value.
Scoping The Marine Market
Late in Q3 Bloom announced it was collaborating with Samsung Heavy Industries to develop SOFC solutions for marine shipping. While lengthy, exhaustive testing will be required for the fuel cells to replace the diesel generators, this is another highly promising SOFC application. While Bloom has been shipping roughly 30 MW of fuel cells per quarter, container ships require from 20 to 100 MW of power apiece. Each new vessel will represent a large SOFC order, relative to current volumes. And such volumes will help the technology travel along the cost learning curve.
While the marine shipping end goal will probably consist of zero-emission fuel (not just hydrogen, but ammonia combustion as well) the interim goal is to move to cleaner and more efficient options than bunker fuel. Hydrogen infrastructure has yet to be widely built, but the worldwide growth of the LNG market means this fuel is becoming widely available — a prerequisite for marine shipping fuel. And with SOFCs able to run on natural gas, they’ll still be a significant, impactful alternative to the incumbent bunker fuel.
In the next installment of Get To Know A Sector we’ll see how fuel cell solutions are taking flight at ZeroAvia.
Matthew Klippenstein (@ElectronComm) for FuelCellsWorks.com.
Matthew Klippenstein is a professional engineer who has tracked the Canadian electric mobility transition for the past seven years. A veteran of Canada’s fuel cell, renewable energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure sectors, he regularly provides sector commentary for television and radio. He does not have business relationships with or hold direct investments in, any companies mentioned in his articles.