Energy | Ecotrope

A "Quantum Leap" For Oregon Fuel Cell Company

Ecotrope | Jan. 11, 2012 5:28 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:33 p.m.

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A graphic illustration of how the ClearEdge Power fuel cell turns natural gas into electricity without burning it.

A graphic illustration of how the ClearEdge Power fuel cell turns natural gas into electricity without burning it.

Hillsboro-based ClearEdge Power has announced a major sale of fuel cells that will convert renewable biomass into electricity in Austria. The sale catapults the Oregon company into a much bigger business model and boosts the budding fuel cell industry.

In one of the largest fuel cell sales ever, ClearEdge landed a $500 million deal to supply 50 megawatts of fuel cell technology to Güssing Renewable Energy. The Güssing, Austria, company plans to use the cells to convert farm and forest waste into carbon neutral electricity. (Güssing is the first community in the European Union to run on 100 percent renewable energy.)

The deal calls for 8.5 megawatts of fuel cells within the next three years and 50 megawatts by 2020. For ClearEdge, that will mean producing thousands of fuel cells – many times more than the 125 units the company has operating now.

Company Vice President Mike Upp told Sustainable Business Oregon it’s “a quantum leap forward for the fuel cell industry and for the companies involved.”

Spokesman Simon Jones said this sale could be a game-changer for ClearEdge, which will be adding jobs in Oregon and Europe as a result and might even be able to lowering the cost of its products.

“The kind of materials you put into these are expensive,” he said. “If you hit a certain degree of scale, you can start to bring down the cost. So, this is a very important deal for us.”

The process by which Güssing Renewable Energy will use ClearEdge fuel cells to turn renewable biomass into electricity without major carbon emissions is fascinating, and slightly complicated. Matthew Wald offered a nice, clear explanation in this New York Times story:

“(Güssing Renewable Energy) takes wood chips and crop wastes and gasifies them, which means that it zaps them into a fuel gas made of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It then rearranges those molecules to make methane and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere, yes; but if the original source of the carbon was trees or crops, then regrowing those would mean that the carbon dioxide would be reabsorbed from the atmosphere. The company’s goal is to build carbon-neutral communities.

ClearEdge builds a five-kilowatt module that takes in natural gas and converts it to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. It then runs the hydrogen through a fuel cell to make electric current. It is about the size of a kitchen refrigerator: “It takes up about that much space, and it makes about that much noise,’’ said Russell Ford, the company’s president and chief executive.”

On the West Coast, ClearEdge fuel cells are running on natural gas – not gas produced from biomass.

But they use natural gas for power without burning it, so there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and they turn it into a constant source of electricity without tapping the power grid.

According to Jones, one of them is currently operating at Portland Community College and serving as a learning tool for students.

Sam Jaffe, a research manager for the market analyst company IDC Energy Insights, said other companies have produced similar fuel cells, but they haven’t performed as well.

“The fundamental promise of a fuel cell is able to take a fuel and get a lot more electricity out of it than any other form of electricity generation,” he said. “What we’ve had in the fuel cell industry is a lot of companies producing a lot of fuel cells that work with few examples of products that work for a long time.”

He said ClearEdge’s order for 50 megawatts of fuel cells is tiny by the energy sector standards – that’s about the smallest power plant you can build.

“But for the fuel cell industry it’s enormous and a very significant deal,” he said. “Getting an order of this size is the equivalent of winning the lottery.”

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