Three parcels of land in Yaphank, including the Brookhaven Town landfill, are scheduled to host one of the nation’s largest collections of fuel-cell power generators by 2018 following an award by LIPA last month.
Three sets of fuel cells producing a combined 39.8 megawatts of power are expected to be operating within miles of each other at sites in Yaphank, officials said. The largest, rated at 18.5 megawatts, will be at the Brookhaven Rail Terminal.
The others will be at the landfill and at Clare Rose, a private company that will make use of the system’s thermal energy, a byproduct of fuel-cell energy production.
The arrays, to be developed and managed by FuelCell Energy of Danbury, Connecticut, will produce more power than any other fuel-cell project operating in the United States, said Chip Bottone, the company’s chief executive.
Collectively, the fuel cells will be the largest renewable energy project on Long Island, in terms of megawatts. Currently, a solar farm rated at 32 megawatts at Brookhaven National Lab is considered the state’s largest.
A November 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Energy said large stationary fuel cells produce a total of 235 megawatts in the United States, and more when small-scale units are included.
California leads the nation with a total of 210 megawatts of generators of all sizes. Connecticut has at least 35 megawatts of fuel cells, with plans for more. New York has around 14 megawatts, the Energy Department said. There are 19 relatively small fuel-cell installations across Long Island, producing about 3.6 megawatts, LIPA said, with another 1.7 megawatts under construction.
Fuel cells are considered a “green” energy in the state, capable of earning renewable energy credits, because they turn natural gas and similar fuels into energy through an electrochemical process rather than combustion.
Some environmentalists question the classification. But fuel-cell developers and utilities have been pushing forward, offering prices that compare favorably with other renewables.
Bottone said contemporary fuel cells are 60 percent efficient, compared with a 45 percent efficiency rate just a few years ago, helping to decrease costs. The units typically last five to seven years.
LIPA considers fuel cells an efficient way to strategically fill power vacuums on the electric grid. They also help the utility avoid costly transmission projects.
The fuel cells in Yaphank will defer the need for grid upgrades and save the authority some $76 million, LIPA chief Tom Falcone said last week.
“We thought we’d get more value out of it if we required the fuel cell to not just be a clean energy-standard-compliant resource but additionally to locate them in the right locations,” Falcone told LIPA trustees last month. “We were able to defer four transmission and distribution projects by locating them in the right place.”
Neal Lewis, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College, said although some environmentalists oppose fuel cells because they use fossil fuels, he doesn’t oppose LIPA’s plan.
“I think it’s an appropriate technology as long as it’s a small part of the overall energy mix,” Lewis said. He called them a “transitional” energy source that can back up intermittent green-energy sources.
All ratepayers will pay for the always-on fuel-cell generators. LIPA estimates that the cost will be $1.13 a month for average residential ratepayers by the time the systems are operational in the next year. The costs are expected to decline over time.
Fuel cells have had a spotty record on Long Island.
LIPA in the past decade spent $21 million for scores of fuel cells from Plug Power, an Albany-area developer. The units ultimately failed, and the experiment caused LIPA to alter its mission as a test bed for new energy technologies. More recently, companies such as Verizon and Home Depot have installed fuel cells on Long Island, including for use as backups during grid outages.
Bottone applauded LIPA’s approach. “A lot of other states, people go with big projects everywhere, in a lot of cases building projects where you don’t need them,” he said. “LIPA did this right. They told us where they needed resources.”
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine said locating the fuel cell at the landfill will bring lease and tax payments to the town, and make use of an otherwise unproductive parcel on the landfill.
Fuel cells “are relatively compact, they are more efficient than solar, and they don’t depend on weather,” Romaine said.