Green tech may fuel studies
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All Pacific Gas and Electric Company customers can expect to see some extra cents tacked onto their monthly statement in the near future, all of it money that will be used to fund PG&E fuel cell projects at two California State Universities.

One of those schools is SF State,where in 6-12 months two fuel cell plants will be up and running on the north side of campus as part of a $20.3 million project with all costs covered by PG&E customers through "nominal" rate increases, company spokesperson Kory Raftery said. Although PG&E will own and operate the plants, "most, if not all" of the power generated by the plants will be used on the SF State campus, he said.

A natural gas fuel cell plant takes hydrogen out of the gas without burning, and in a small container a chemical process takes place with an oxidant, which produces water, heat and electricity.

The project, proposed by PG&E in early 2009, was approved by the California Public Utilities Commission on April 8 of this year despite opposition because of cost and questionable educational benefits.

-Energy Enlightenment-
Both the school and the energy company tout the educational opportunities the presence of the fuel cell plants will provide, but it's unclear what exactly those opportunities are.

The CPUC decided that ratepayers should not have to pick up the tab for PG&E's plans to "install an educational kiosk at each campus, coordinate signage and educational material, help develop class curriculum, host tours of the facilities, and facilitate educational and community outreach."

Raftery would not say if PG&E plans to proceed with the fuel cell promotional campaign, but said that the company "will do whatever (it) can to help."

He was not sure if PG&E, as the owner and operator of the plants, will allow students to tinker with them for learning purposes. Robert E. Hutson, vice president of the SF State Facilities and Services Enterprises Department, which is in charge of the project implementation, said the department could not comment until after May 22 because it is currently "completely involved with preparing the campus for commencement."

The Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA), which opposed the project, had serious doubts about any educational benefits, saying it's "highly unlikely" that a fuel cell plant "under service contract and warrantee will tolerate any adjustment or reconfiguration for classroom purposes." That would leave students staring at a large box, an activity the DRA finds lacking in academic value.

"There is nothing that a student can learn from repeated visits to a fuel cell, any more than students could learn from viewing a power line," the DRA argued in opposition to the project.

One of the departments that the presence of the fuel cells is supposed to advance is engineering, but director of the department Wenshen Pong said he was unaware of the project. PG&E spokesperson Raftery said that President Corrigan's office has been "very supportive."

-Cost and Cleanliness-
"Fuel cells are more expensive than cleaner energy like wind and solar," said Marcel Hawiger, attorney for the Utility Reform Network. "If ratepayer money is being used, do something cleaner that doesn't release carbon dioxide and contribute to global warming."   While fuel cell plants emit less greenhouse gases than conventional power plants, how much less they release depends on waste heat can be captured and used.

Raftery said fuel cells can be cleaner with biogas, but none is available on the SF State campus.

The average cost of energy in California is seven cents per kilowatt-hour (a 100-watt light bulb switched on for 10 hours uses one kWh of electricity) and 10 cents per kWh is the benchmark set for renewable energy; fuel cells produce energy at roughly 30 cents per kWh, according to the CPUC's authorization of the project.

-Market Forces-
Although fuel cell energy costs more than that produced by renewable and other conventional energy technology, the CPUC felt that the plants on two college campuses will help "advance the market" of fuel cells.

Although fuel cells have been around since the 1960s, PG&E argued that students who become familiar with these fuel cells through their coursework will make investments in the technology in the future, thereby transforming the fuel cell market, according to CPUC documents.

The Utility Reform Network contended that rather than transforming the market, the projects are the equivalent to a ratepayer subsidy for the fuel cell industry.

One of the companies whose fuel cell plant will be on SF State's campus is Bloom Energy, which had its coming out party in February revealing big-name customers like eBay, Google, FedEx, and Walmart (although they receive a 50 percent discount in the form of tax breaks and subsidies). The event opened with a short speech from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said, "When people think of clean energy they should think not just of solar, geothermal, hydro, or wind, but also of Bloom Energy."

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