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SDG&E exploring fuel cell, renewable technologies

JAMES PALEN

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In the rural town of Alpine and the vast desert east of the city, San Diego Gas & Electric has a massive project underway that will, it is hoped, enhance the utility’s ability to draw more renewable energy to its grid.

That project, the Sunrise Powerlink – a planned 117-mile, $1.9 billion effort – has received a lot of attention since its fall 2010 groundbreaking, leaving behind seemingly less exciting siblings a group of other SDG&E projects along the renewable front.

With character all their own, most of SDG&E’s smaller projects will bring a very familiar type of renewable energy to the grid – solar. But one non-solar project in particular stands out from the crowd, not just because it isn’t solar, but because it’s something the utility has never delved into before.

It’s a fuel cell. And SDG&E is excited about it.

“We hope so,” said SDG&E Director of Customer Innovations Alex Kim, when asked if the initial dive into fuel cells could spark more opportunities for the utility. “It will give us a good opportunity to learn how these perform – the operations of them.”

The rooftop of the Energy Innovation Center at California State University, San Marcos, a recent project from San Diego Gas & Electric.

Due for completion later this year at the J & D Laboratories pharmaceutical facility in Vista, it’s a 400-kilowatt cell to be installed by United Technologies Corp. (NYSE: UTX). While it does represent a new venture for SDG&E, the addition of a cell doesn’t mean SDG&E expects it to drastically change its regional portfolio.

“It’s more about the application for this,” Kim said. “So for us, we’ll be using it as a distributed energy type of application for the facility.”

SDG&E will learn whether the heat produced is a distribution resource that can be relied upon, he added. Also exciting to the utility is the usage monitoring that will become easier. As owner of the cell, SDG&E will be able to gather data from the fuel cell that would otherwise be more difficult to monitor.

Powered by directed biogas contracted for by SDG&E, Kim thinks of it as a win-in, win-out situation.

“So the fuel cell is effectively running off green power,” Kim said, while at the same time, producing more green power.

El Cajon-based Hamann Companies is in the process of preparing the site for United Technologies’ final installation, led by project manager John Belcher. Hamann recently began digging for the underground work, Belcher said, and the pipes through which the electrical wires and gas will pass were being installed starting Oct. 11.

By early November, various other pipes are due to go in the ground. That will leave the site ready for a concrete slab.

That last bit of work will be another in a long string of tasks Hamann has completed to upgrade the lab. Beginning in August 2008, Hamann built a 100,000 square-foot building there, part of which was the room that will house the soon-to-be-installed fuel cell.

Though not as intimately involved in the construction aspect of the project, Hamann’s Phoebe Hamann Jones – a certified accredited professional in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – said the long-awaited completion will make for interesting benefits to both SDG&E and J & D.

Combusting natural gas to produce energy, the fuel cell leaves behind two byproducts: water and heat. J & D will take both waste products, which normally are considered for two separate uses, to help preheat the company’s boilers.

“In J & D’s case, why it works so well for them is that you can capture that waste heat in the water, and they use an enormous amount of hot water in their process to make vitamins,” Hamann Jones said.

On the SDG&E side, she said the utility will be able to take advantage of being both the owner of the cell and the rate-setter on the energy it produces and that SDG&E purchases from it.

“In one sense, it gives a value to the fuel cell, showing that they can work for everyone – there’s a payback.”

In addition to the fuel cell, SDG&E is adding renewable energy in solar form with projects at its Energy Innovation Center; California State University, San Marcos; University of California, San Diego’s Revelle College; and Pacific Station in Encinitas.

When complete, the Energy Innovation Center is going to be a state of the art, LEED Platinum certified facility, Kim said, and will provide customers with education and information about energy efficiency. It’s slated for a 47-kilowatt rooftop installation and a 62-kilowatt “solar grove” of solar module-covered carports. Silverwood Energy is working the rooftop portion, while Envision Solar is installing the carport system. Both are scheduled for a fall completion.

Vista’s Independent Energy Solutions, Cal State San Marcos’ 35-kilowatt rooftop project on the public safety building should be done by the end of the year. IES is also working the Pacific Station install, which will bring a 135-kilowatts system to the top of the mixed-use facility’s parking garage.

Sullivan Solar Power is the builder of the UCSD system, a 40-kilowatt rooftop installation.

The five current SDG&E projects, fuel cell included, add up to 672 kilowatts of renewable power that will soon be available to the SDG&E and the host sites.

“All of our projects feed directly into the grid,” Kim said, “so they all provide power to that facility as well as other neighboring areas, wherever the load is needed.”

So while the attention-snatching SDG&E sibling under construction in the desert may continue to get the headlines, it appears the five little brothers out west are determined to hold their own.

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