Sierra Nevada harnesses 'beer power' to reduce its energy costs

FuelCell Energy Inc., a manufacturer of ultra-clean electric power plants for commercial, industrial and government customers, recently announced the upgrade of its 1-megawatt (MW) Direct Fuel Cell power plant at Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to use fuel created from a waste byproduct of the brewing process. With this enhancement, Sierra Nevada furthers its sustainability and energy-efficiency goals, while realizing substantial cost savings by offsetting its purchase of natural gas.

The Chico, Calif., brewery's fuel cell power plant, which began running last summer and was dedicated by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, initially ran on natural gas. To boost the brewery's energy efficiency and ecologically friendly profile, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman sought to convert the ultra-clean fuel cells from operating solely on natural gas to a gas mixture that the brewery produced as a byproduct, methane.

Sierra Nevada installed a compressor and filtration system to purify methane gas that is generated during the brewery's water treatment process, and then feed it to the power plant for fuel. As a result, two of the plant's four fuel cell stacks can now operate in dual fuel mode – using any combination of natural gas and anaerobic digester gas (ADG). As Sierra Nevada increases its production and the amount of methane it generates, it also can operate the other two fuel cells on ADG. Gas produced in the digester reduces the amount of fuel used in the power plant. The system is now capable of producing 250 to 400 kilowatts (kW) of electricity from biogas, reducing the company's fuel costs by 25 to 40 percent. Regardless of the fuel blend used, the high efficiency of DFC power plants require less fuel than conventional power plants, resulting in lower operating costs and an overall reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere per unit of power output.

The 1 MW power plant, one of three FuelCell Energy megawatt-class sites now running in California, is classified as an ultra-clean technology under California law and provides virtually 100 percent of Sierra Nevada's base load power requirements. The fuel cells operate in co-generation mode, so their 650-degree thermal output is utilized to create steam that further offsets the natural gas needs of their existing boilers providing an additional reduction in operating costs and increase in system efficiency. The facility was named one of 12 "Top Plants" worldwide by Power Magazine in 2006.

"By converting the DFC plants to operate on ADG, we have further advanced our company's sustainability goals and reduced our energy and waste disposal costs," said Sierra Nevada's Grossman. "The fuel cell power plant provides us with reliable, 24/7 electricity and helps make our energy self-sufficiency a reality."

Sierra Nevada 's installation of ultra-clean onsite power generation has also enhanced the company's reputation of being a good neighbor by helping to reduce demand on the local power grid for the production of its award-winning craft beer. The company benefits by ensuring that its critical business operations have access to reliable power and neighbors have access to more power that would otherwise be consumed by the brewery.

"The installation at Sierra Nevada is a great example of the fuel flexibility of our DFC power plants," said Bruce Ludemann, senior vice president, FuelCell Energy. "Because fuel cells generate energy by chemical conversion rather than combustion, they can convert virtually any biomass- or hydrocarbon-power source into ultra-clean electricity. Sierra Nevada is reducing its energy costs and eliminating a manufacturing byproduct that would otherwise add to its disposal and wastewater expenditures."

When the fuel cells generate more power than the brewery requires, Sierra Nevada can send excess electricity back to the grid system and receive credit for a portion of its generation costs. A number of other FuelCell Energy power plant sites use waste-related processes to create renewable fuel for generating their electricity. Kirin Brewery in Japan operates a DFC power plant fueled on digester gas. In August, Gills Onions purchased two DFC units to be fueled with ADG resulting from waste onion peels. The power plant will create ultra-clean energy while lowering disposal costs of this byproduct. Approximately half the project cost was offset by federal investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation (both created by the US Energy Act of 2005), as well as funds from the California Self Generation Incentive Program (SGIP).

About FuelCell Energy:
FuelCell Energy develops and markets ultra-clean power plants that generate electricity with higher efficiency than distributed generation plants of similar size and with virtually no air pollution. Fuel cells produce base load electricity giving commercial and industrial customers greater control over their power generation economics, reliability and emissions. Emerging state, federal and international regulations to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions consider fuel cell power plants in the same environmentally friendly category as wind and solar energy sources -- with the added advantages of running 24 hours a day and the capacity to be installed where wind turbines or solar panels often cannot. Headquartered in Danbury, Conn., FuelCell Energy services over 50 power plant sites around the globe that have generated more than 124 million kilowatt hours, and conducts R&D on next-generation fuel cell technologies to meet the world's ever-increasing demand for ultra-clean distributed energy. To learn more, visit www.fuelcellenergy.com. Subscribe to Machinery Lubrication