Fuel Cells for the Fishes
How technology might save the 10,000 aquatic residents of the New York City Aquarium.
By Christopher Ditto
February 15, 2002
Behind the New York City Aquarium in Coney Island, away from the public and surrounded by a chain link fence, is an inconspicuous beige dumpster-sized box that drastically reduces pollution and just might save the lives of over 8,000 fish.
The box houses the aquarium's newly installed fuel cell, a revolutionary electricity-generating device that has been providing one-fifth of the aquarium's electricity since last December. If the power goes out in Coney Island, the fuel cell will keep the fish and aquatic mammals alive.
"The aquarium has a large number of life support systems and backup life support systems for the tanks," said New York Power Authority (NYPA) spokesman Brian Warner, "the benefit from the fuel cell is high reliability." An alternative to the fuel cell, according to Warner, would have been a diesel generator that would require more maintenance and perform less reliably.
The aquarium first opened in 1896 and is now the oldest continually operated aquarium in the United States. The aquarium, located on 14 acres alongside the Coney Island Boardwalk, is now home to more than 350 wildlife species including tropical fish, seahorses, sharks, and whales. Every aquatic exhibit at the aquarium requires either heating or cooling.
The NYPA, along with the New York City Office of Management and Budget and the New York City Wildlife Conservation Society, financed the aquarium's new fuel cell, which cost about $900,000. The price, about twice as high as for a comparable gas turbine generator, is one of the largest challenges for fuel cell technology.
One year ago the San Francisco Zoo fell victim to the sort of power failure that aquarium operators fear most. While transferring 150 endangered fish from Madagascar between tanks, the zoo suffered a blackout. Zoo spokeswoman Nancy Chan told the Associated Press that the fish survived after being rushed to a generator-conditioned tank in the zoo's hospital and that disaster was only narrowly averted.
"Because we're a public utility," said Warner, "we're trying to demonstrate technologies that have an environmental and economic benefit for our customers." The NYPA has also installed fuel cells at North Central Bronx Hospital, Yonkers Wastewater Treatment Facility, and the New York Police Department stationhouse in Central Park.
The New York Aquarium's fuel cell, one of only 235 worldwide, has the potential to generate 200 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power 150 homes. Manufactured by UTC Fuel Cells, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation (UTC), the PC25 fuel cell used by the aquarium has been generating quite a buzz in the energy industry. In November, 2000, UTC was given a Climate Protection Award by the US. Environmental Protection Agency, largely for their commercialization of fuel cell technology with the PC25.
According to Judith Ann Bayer, UTC Director of Environmental and Government Affairs, the New York Aquarium fuel cell emits less than an ounce of air pollution every five hours when running at full capacity while "the average fossil fuel generating station produces as much as 25 pounds" in the same amount of time.
If major energy consumers were to switch to fuel cells, proponents like Bayer argue, many of our nation's energy shortage and pollution worries would vanish.
The aquarium at Humboldt State University's Telonicher Marine Lab in Trinidad, Calif., just might be the only other fuel cell-equipped aquarium in the world. The Humboldt aquarium uses both solar power and an experimental hydrogen-driven fuel cell to power the aquarium's air compressor. The air compressor aerates the tanks providing oxygen, which allows the fish to breath.
But what makes the New York Aquarium fuel cell revolutionary is the way in which it generates electricity. At the New York Aquarium, the fuel cell takes natural gas from preexisting low-pressure gas lines and converts it into electricity without burning it. The process, which produces only a very faint humming noise, also produces heat, which the aquarium has been able to use.
"They've been able to turn off their traditional hot water tank and utilize the heat for hot water," said Warner. "Right now they are not using all of the heat, but down the road they have a plan that will allow them to utilize all of the potential heat."
Robert B. Castell, CEO of KeySpan Energy, believes fuel cells are both a challenging and promising technology. KeySpan Technology, owned by KeySpan Energy, currently services all four fuel cells installed in New York City by NYPA. Brooklyn Energy, also owned by KeySpan Energy, provides the natural gas for the aquarium's fuel cell.
"We want to take our customers into the new century with the latest, cleanest and most reliable energy sources available," said Castell, "and we believe fuel cells may someday unlock a wealth of opportunity for the energy industry and private homeowners."
But besides the obvious benefits of reducing emissions and increasing efficiency, four upcoming NYPA fuel cell installations will also include waste recycling. Four New York City wastewater treatment plants, including the Red Hook Water Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, operated by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, are scheduled for retrofitting as part of a $23 million program designed to reduce air-polluting emissions in New York City.
Instead of consuming natural gas, the installed fuel cells will use a by-product of the treatment process, known as anaerobic digester gas (ADG), as fuel instead of natural gas. ADG is a potentially harmful waste gas, which is primarily composed of carbon dioxide and methane, and is usually either burned off, in a process called flaring, or simply released into the atmosphere. Environmentalists argue that both releasing and flaring ADG contributes to the greenhouse effect and, by extension, global warming.
One similar fuel cell installation by the NYPA at a wastewater treatment plant in Yonkers is currently generating enough electricity to power about 150 homes. The Yonkers facility, said Warner, "gets to shave its energy consumption profile, because the electricity that is produced by the fuel cell is fed back into the plant, the plant is also able to use the heat that is produced by the fuel cell." What Warner means is that the Yonkers facility consumes the energy that it produces resulting in significantly less demand from the New York electrical supply grid. Less electrical demand, most analysts agree, will result in lower summer and winter electricity prices for all New Yorkers. It may just also save New York's fish.
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