Using Fuel Cells in Healthcare Settings

For years, vendors and environmentalists have touted the promise of fuel cells, running on hydrogen, producing no carbon emissions as the future power system for saving the global environment. Yet that promise has remained frustratingly elusive. High first cost, high ongoing maintenance issues, inflexibility in fuel sources have all conspired, and large physical footprint have all conspired to make the fuel cell pot of gold ever out of reach.

And, because of the emissions problems associated with diesel generators, environmentalists like to tout the fuel cell as the replacement for these noxious yet reliable units.

But still, the solution tantalizes, and data centers, those buildings most in need of clean, reliable power, have begun to implement fuel cells on a wide scale, thus showing the promise of the technology.

Indeed, costs for fuel cell solutions, coupled with potential creative financing mechanisms, have begun to suggest that certain implementations for fuel cells could, in fact, become feasible. Indeed, if a hospital were to replace its diesel emergency generators with fuel cells, then it could buy down the cost of the fuel cell, and, by running it continuously; the fuel cell could start to make real economic sense.

One barrier to this implementation to date has been the source of fuel. Traditionally, fuel cells have run only off of natural gas, and natural gas is notoriously difficult and expensive to store, making a device that ran on fuel cells a poor choice for an emergency source of power. But, newer fuel cell technologies, running on different fuels, offer better fuel storage options and start to make their use as viable replacements for diesel generators real.

But, a design with a fuel cell that served both as a prime power source and a backup power source would violate both the spirit and the letter of the current regulatory regime. And, if one were to design a system that used fuel cells in lieu of diesel generators for emergency use, it would require a re-think of the entire electrical power and distribution system. Fortunately, the chairs of NFPA 99 Electrical Systems Technical Committee, NFPA 70 Panel 15 (Healthcare), and NFPA 110 have agreed to work together to craft just such regulatory language so that the codes, rather than preventing the emergence of new and innovative technologies, invite them.

The NFPA will be meeting through the fall of 2012 to examine various alternatives for fuel cell inclusion into these codes as a replacement for diesel emergency generators for healthcare facilities.

Kaiser Permanente has undertaken an early incarnation of fuel cell implementation. By the time of the PDC, Kaiser Permanente will have installed 5 MW of fuel cells, and will have some track record for operating them. This session will close with a review of the challenges faced in this implementation, and some reflections on their performance, together with insights into how this technology is evolving, and how it is likely to become available for use to ASHE members.