University’s New Fuel Cell Is a ‘Huge Commitment to Sustainability’

By September 1, 2023 6   min read  (1051 words)

September 1, 2023 |

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Providing all of the base power for the Bergami Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation, the University’s first fuel cell is a critical step forward in minimizing the University’s energy footprint. The hope is that it will be the first of several fuel cells that will provide power to the campus.

Aliza Johns ’23, ’25 M.S. hoped their Honors thesis research would make an important impact on sustainability, and they chose to focus on buildings very close to home: several of the University’s own residence halls. While working on the project, Johns found a variety of opportunities for enhancing sustainability on campus – among them was the addition of a fuel cell.

The University has done just that, and the new fuel cell is helping to power the Bergami Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation – a short distance away from the buildings Johns studied. It promises to provide a greener way to power the campus.

“I learned that sustainability is continuous,” said Johns, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is now a candidate in the University’s graduate program in biomedical engineering. “There is always room for improvement, and I think that is really what engineering is about. Continuous research and updates are the way to sustainability.” webp to jpg

Aliza Johns ’23, ’25 M.S. in the Bergami Center.

‘Our commitment to sustainability’

The University’s new 300-kilowatt fuel cell will provide 100 percent of the base power for the Bergami Center. In other words, the fuel cell will cover the base-load component of the electric bill. As demand for power increases during certain months of the year, the University will likely have to purchase additional power to address peak demand loads. The fuel cell is expected to save the University $100,000 each year in electricity it no longer has to buy.

Laura Miller, director of energy and sustainability, has continued to explore new ways to make the University greener. She says the new fuel cell is a “huge commitment to sustainability” – one that’s been in the works for many years.

“It’s exciting to have both this project and the new electric vehicle stations on campus completed during the same year,” said Miller. “It’s great to show our commitment to sustainability moving forward.” webp to jpg 1

Signs near the fuel cell explain how it is making a green impact.

‘Power without combustion’

After visiting other schools in the state with fuel cells to learn more about them, University staff selected the company Bloom Energy and began to develop a plan for the University’s fuel cell. It is a large battery, of sorts, that uses natural gas as the source of fuel, creating water and heat as byproducts. Located adjacent to Buckman Hall and the Bergami Center, it looks like a row of large refrigerators. The nearby signage explains how fuel cells work, enabling Chargers to better understand the system and how it is enhancing the University’s sustainability initiatives.

“It’s a neat looking system,” said Miller. “This one is more aesthetically packaged than many at other schools.”

“We are excited to support University of New Haven’s sustainability goals while also helping them reduce electric costs,” said Stephen Lamm, senior director of sustainability for Bloom Energy. “Bloom Energy’s fuel cells allow the University to generate 24/7 onsite power without combustion.”

‘We do have some opportunities’

As the University has added major science labs and large, energy-intensive buildings such as the Bergami Center, it has not added to its webp to jpg 2

Aliza Johns ’23, ’25 M.S. outside Buckman Hall.

overall energy footprint, thanks to technology such as the fuel cell and its ongoing commitment to sustainability. Louis Annino ’99 EMBA, associate vice president of facilities and chief facilities officer, says little things such as turning off lights and turning down thermostats also add up to big energy savings.

“While the University has grown significantly in the past decade, we’ve done that with zero increase in our overall energy footprint, which is really pretty remarkable,” he said. “Energy conservation is always an ongoing responsibility, and there’s plenty more work to do, but the University has done a good job of managing energy growth with zero impact on our bottom line, which is pretty amazing.”

The way in which the University has grown has also created unique opportunities for sustainability initiatives – including, possibly, additional fuel cells. Annino identifies an area off Ruden Street near several of the University’s largest residence halls. He believes that combining enough of that power in its own electrical substation would make it a prime candidate for fuel cell technology. He also believes the new Peterson Performance Center may also be an excellent candidate.

“A key driver that makes fuel cells economically feasible is having enough power aggregated through one distribution point,” he explains. “As the University has grown, we evolved one building at a time, so each has its own power feed off the street. We have all these pockets of power, but not any big aggregation, though we do have some opportunities to do that.” webp to jpg 3

Signage outside the fuel cell explains how the fuel cell works.


‘The difference they make in students’ lives’

These are opportunities that students such as Johns are also interested in, and Johns worked closely with Miller and Annino while conducting their Honors thesis research. Johns, too, concluded that aggregating power and adding fuel cells could be beneficial.

The research was particularly relevant for Johns, who says the project aligns with their future career plans. Now an associate gas engineer with Southern Connecticut Gas, a subsidiary of AVANGRID, Inc., Johns is grateful for the support of their mentors at the University, including Miller who shared her knowledge of sustainability and Annino, who personally showed Johns the inner workings of the heating and cooling systems in the residence halls.

“I worked with many different people at the University, and I learned so much from them,” said Johns. “I am truly grateful for all the help and guidance they have given me this past year. I hope to stay in touch with them and that they see the difference they make in students’ lives. I also look forward to continuing to work with AVANGRID to see amazing innovation in the energy sector.”



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