Fuel cell installation to provide clean power for WCSU Science Building
Power unit startup this month aims to maximize efficiency of electricity and heat usage

DANBURY, CONN. Western Connecticut State University stands to reap significant energy cost savings and enhanced electricity and heating efficiencies thanks to startup this month of a newly installed fuel cell power unit for the Science Building on the university’s Midtown campus in Danbury.

Installation of the fuel cell system has been completed under a 10-year Energy Services Agreement (ESA) signed last summer between the university and ClearEdge Power of South Windsor, formerly UTC Power. The installation was made possible by a federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant arranged through the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority (CEFIA) of Connecticut. The PureCell Model 400 system, a stationary phosphoric acid fuel cell capable of producing 400 kilowatts per hour of assured electrical power, plus 1.5 million British thermal units per hour of usable heat, was placed in January on university property adjacent to the Osborne Street side of the Science Building. Power generation by the unit is scheduled to begin on April 25, 2013.

“PureCell fuel cell systems, like the Model 400 now powering part of WCSU, are ideal energy solutions for campus environments because they are a highly efficient, ultra-clean way to meet baseload energy needs,” said Neal Starling, ClearEdge Power executive vice president. “WCSU marks the sixth academic campus using ClearEdge Power fuel cells across the country to power their facilities, and we are extremely proud of the strong Connecticut partnership this project represents.”

Luigi Marcone, WCSU director of facilities operations and environmental health and safety (EHS) programs, noted the university will pay for fuel cell generation of electricity supply to the Science Building at a rate significantly below that available on the power grid, yielding net savings projected at an average of about $25,000 per year during the next decade.

“We’re excited about this project,” Marcone observed. “We’ve been working on establishing a fuel cell unit here for several years. We are committed to coming up with more efficient energy alternatives at Western to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.”

Fuel cell technology will enable the Science Building unit to produce electricity through use of natural gas to set off a continuous chemical reaction that generates electric current, along with heat and water vapor byproducts. Because no combustion is required in this process, fuel cells offer a clean alternative to conventional fuel-burning sources of electrical energy that produce carbon dioxide and other pollutant emissions.

Marcone said the relatively stable electrical demand year-round for Science Building operations will maximize the energy efficiency gains yielded by the new fuel cell system. Channeling of waste heat generated in the fuel cell unit to provide thermal energy in the Science Building will further enhance the efficiency realized in power generation.

“Fuel cells create a significant amount of waste heat and, unless you have a way to use that heat, the efficiency gains just aren’t there,” he remarked. “Our challenge was to determine where we can most efficiently use the electricity produced by a fuel cell unit and at the same time where we can make use of the heat given off.

“The waste heat will be piped into the building through coils and connected to the heating infrastructure to heat water in the building,” he said. “In a traditional process, that heat would be going up a smokestack.” A portion of lower-grade heat from the fuel cell process also may be diverted to air handling units on the roof of the Science Building to warm air intake for the ventilation system during the heating season, he noted.

The ClearEdge Power fuel cell installed at Western is the same small-footprint model that recently began power generation at Eastern Connecticut State University. These installations are part of a clean-energy program in state higher education that also includes fuel cell projects at Southern and Central Connecticut State universities, which contracted for larger, higher-capacity systems produced by FuelCell Energy of Danbury.

Marcone emphasized the fuel cell project represents the latest in a series of initiatives undertaken by WCSU in recent years to achieve improved efficiency and reduced costs in utilities operations on the Midtown and Westside campuses. Previous modifications to operating schedules and to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the Science Building have yielded substantial utilities savings, he noted, and similar energy efficiency measures have been undertaken at other facilities on both campuses.

The university’s recent replacement of a boiler more than half a century old will produce major savings in domestic hot water distribution costs on the Midtown campus thanks to efficiency gains as high as 50 to 60 percent, he observed. The university also is better positioned to control energy costs due to HVAC system renovations that now provide access to natural gas as an alternative to oil use at most Midtown campus buildings.

“Utilities represent one of our biggest potential sources for savings in operating costs,” Marcone said. “We have done a lot over the past five to seven years in this area, including lighting retrofits, energy efficiency upgrades, expanded building automation and controls. All these things have been done behind the scenes so that we no longer have to depend on antiquated and inefficient lighting, heating and cooling systems.”

He explained the lack of natural gas access on the Westside campus currently rules out some sites with potential for fuel cell power generation such as the O’Neill Athletic and Convocation Center, but he still views the Science Building project as an important model for clean-energy initiatives in the future. “This is going to be a good stepping stone for us, and we are prepared to prove the effectiveness of this option,” he said.

Marcone also emphasized the potential educational benefits of having an operational fuel cell system installed and accessible at the Science Building, opening opportunities for Western faculty members to incorporate lessons on the science and technology of fuel cell power generation as well as the environmental impact of integrating clean-energy resources in the power grid. He expressed optimism that diverse aspects of fuel cell power will be explored in relevant subject areas ranging from biological and environmental sciences to chemistry and earth sciences.

For more information, contact Marcone at marconel@wcsu.edu or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.

Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.

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