UCSD to Power University With Sewage Gas

UCSD is partnering with two local businesses to build a power plant on campus.

The university is working with Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy and local corporation BioFuels Energy to create three of the world’s largest fuel cells.

Fuel cells, a type of power plant, are an alternative source of energy that generate energy without combustion. This prevents pollutants from being expelled into the air.

One fuel cell produces 2.8 megawatts, enough energy to power over 2,000 homes per hour. UCSD will be installing one of these 2.8-megawatt plants, while the other two — a 1.4-megawatt and a 300-kilowatt fuel cell — will be installed in the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant and Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant, respectively.

“By the end of 2011, UCSD will be the only university that will hold the largest commercially available fuel cell in the world,” Director of Strategic Energy Initiatives at UCSD Byron Washom said. “Fuel cell technology and research, as of today, is small and so the partnership with both FuelCell Energy and BioFuels Energy is that much more important.”

The project will cost $45 million in total, of which $17 million will go toward the fuel cell plant on campus.

The $17 million will be funded by federal grants.

Washom said the fuel cell will improve the campus’ self-generation of electricity, though he is waiting on statistical confirmation. The location of the fuel cell will be finalized in about two weeks.

Currently, UCSD generates electricity through solar panels installed on over 26 UCSD buildings, like the newly built East Campus Energy Complex near the baseball fields, Gilman Parking Structure and atop Price Center. The university receives 83 percent of electricity from these solar panels, which will grow to 90 percent by December 2011. There is also an established 30-megawatt natural gas power plant.

The on-campus cell will use purified methane  from the local Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant as the primary fuel source. Methane is a bio gas that contributes to global warming.

“The Point Loma plant currently expels about 1.3 million cubic feet of methane gas into the atmosphere a day, and being able to convert such toxic gas into clean energy through non-combustion fuel cells will be very efficient for large institutions like UCSD,” BioFuels Energy managing director Frank Mazanec said.

According to Mazanec, the greenhouse gas methane is 22 times more detrimental to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The cell will purify the bio gas on site and then inject it into the San Diego Gas and Electric pipelines, which will directly feed into the assembled fuel cells at UCSD and the other two proposed sites in San Diego.

The plan is different from previous plans that called for methane to be transported in pressurized gas tankers from Point Loma. This proposal was rejected by Point Loma residences because it risked the safety of homes en route of the tankers.

“Fuel cell technology is the green technology of the future,” FuelCell Energy Southern California sales representative Phong Nguyen said. “The key to the efficiency of this technology lies in a constant stream of fuel to these cells, which is accomplished by the methane pipelines installed directly from the Point Loma plant.”

Nguyen said he hopes the three fuel cell power plants installed in San Diego will eliminate the emission of over 68,100 pounds of pollutants produced from treatment and power plants annually.

“That is like removing over 2,000 cars from the road per year,” Nguyen said.

The 2.8-megawatt fuel cell will supply power to the campus electrical grid. On-site power generation will also allow the university to control its own power supply and energy outputs and provides electrical power 24 hours a day with the fuel cell.

“This step is imperative if UCSD desires to reduce costs of generation of electricity,” Mazanec said. “With the fuel cells in place, the university can literally control its own destiny and save over $500,000 of energy costs per year.”

Washom said the project can set a precedent for green energy.

“If this project does indeed succeed, we can apply the fuel cell technology to many municipalities around the world,” Washom said. “We can use the readily available methane producing wastewater treatment plants coupled with these fuel cells to help create self-sufficient power around the world.”

He added that there should be more student involvement in investigating alternative sources of energy.

Currently, there are student-run projects that try to find renewable energy sources by analyzing algae and its potential to help create electricity. Other projects investigate the validity of using vegetable oil as a means of alternative energy.

“Student involvement in alternative energy solutions research, which is readily available at UCSD, will not only look good on the student resume, but also help them learn a lot about our current energy problems,” Washom said.

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