In late May, a 60,000-pound fuel cell nearly the size of a freight car was hoisted onto the site of 360 State Street, a mixed-use highrise under construction in downtown New Haven. The 400-kilowatt unit is the first large-scale fuel cell to power a residential development anywhere in the world, according to the building’s developer, and just might herald the next wave of sustainably-powered design.
The team explored several potential sources of renewable energy before deciding on the fuel cell, which uses oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity and heat, according to Bruce Becker, president of Connecticut-based Becker + Becker, both developer and architect on the project. The cell will meet nearly 100 percent of the building’s electricity demands, and its waste heat will become thermal energy to heat the 700,000-square-foot building’s pool and domestic water sources for 500 apartments.
Installation of the cell on the ground floor of the 32-story structure had only minor impacts upon construction, including piping to link it to the pool and domestic hot water sources; thermal storage tanks to hold the hot water produced by its waste heat; and electric conduits to transfer electricity to residential and commercial units.
The project did face engineering challenges unique to the technology. The daily cycles of energy consumption require connections to municipal utility grids, from which the building can draw electricity and natural gas when energy demand is peaking. Such an arrangement is an obstacle for residential projects like 360 State Street: Under Connecticut state law, tenants cannot be direct customers of both the fuel cell owner and the utility company, and similar laws exist in most states.
“The main reason fuel cells have not been used in residential buildings is it is difficult to figure out how to meter the residential tenants [who receive] the majority of their power from the fuel cell and supplementary power from the grid,” explained project manager Michelle Lauterwasser. “We are still in discussion with our utility company on exactly how this will work.”
The fuel cell was possible thanks to a grant from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund to cover nearly half the cost of the $1.8 million unit. This assistance, in addition to the annual energy savings, allow for a payback period of 5.5 years. Given the need for subsidies, William Leahy, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University, suggested that the cost of fuel-cell power must dramatically decrease before it can compete with the alternatives. “For this project, I think the technical efficiency and environmental benefits of a fuel cell will be apparent,” he said. “But I’m not sure the economic benefits will be.”