Could natural gas be used to power your entire home?

A new partnership between Peoples Natural Gas and Mt. Pleasant-based WATT Fuel Cell will explore the feasibility of using solid oxide fuel cells powered by natural gas to provide electricity to area homes.

“We see this as a pioneering effort in having folks think differently about how they power their homes,” says Jeff Nehr, VP of production and business development for Peoples.

Fuel cells take hydrogen, in this case derived from natural gas, combine it with oxygen and convert it to electricity. Heat is the only byproduct, and because there is no combustion, it emits virtually no greenhouse gases.

“The whole system is intrinsically safer,” says WATT CEO, Caine Finnerty.

Later this summer, Peoples will launch a 100-home pilot program using WATT fuel cells to determine if the technology can be a cleaner, more efficient way to power homes across Western Pennsylvania.

“It’s like one degree of separation.” 

Dr. Caine Finnerty’s lifelong fascination with the transformative potential of fuel cells began 20 years ago when he was a PhD student at Keele University in his native England.

After stints in Buffalo and elsewhere in the U.S., Finnerty opened WATT Fuel Cell in Long Island, NY in 2010.  What distinguished WATT in the industry was their 3D printing process, which allows the cells to be constructed in a matter of minutes, as opposed to taking hundreds of hours.

In 2014, Finnerty received a call from a friend who told him about a potential business opportunity in Western PA.

“It’s like one degree of separation,” said Finnerty about the close-knit fuel cell community. Particularly intriguing to him was that the business, Pittsburgh Electric Engine, spun off from Westinghouse.

Dr. Caine Finnerty. Photo courtesy WATT Fuel Cell.

“In our industry, if you open any textbook on fuel cells, the first 30 percent is always Westinghouse,” he said. This imprimatur convinced him to check out the operation firsthand.

Finnerty said that he and Electric Engine’s owner, Owen Taylor, got along immediately. More importantly, the two companies’ specialties overlapped: Electric Engine spent years researching the materials used to construct fuel cells, while WATT’s specialty was in its super quick 3D printing process.

As Finnerty recalls, he originally planned to acquire the company and move operations back to Long Island. But Mt. Pleasant Borough Supervisor, Jack Rutkowski, convinced him to meet with Westmoreland County’s Industrial Development Corporation (WCIDC) to see if there could be an arrangement made to keep the operation in Mt. Pleasant.  

Turns out it could: Within 24 hours, Finnerty was back in Long Island informing his company that they were relocating to Mt. Pleasant. All but one member of the team made the move to Western PA.  

“When WATT Fuel Cell approached us about their product and prospective growth, immediately we were intrigued by their potential,” wrote Jason Rigone, executive director of WCIDC.

“The opportunity to transition the building located in rural Mt. Pleasant Township from traditional manufacturing to one that manufactures next-generation fuel cells was something we fully embraced.”

WCIDC runs the Mt. Pleasant Glass Centre industrial park, which includes WATT’s roughly 39,000-square-foot operation. The state helped the move along by contributing a $300,000 grant and $370,000 loan from the Commonwealth Financing Authority’s Alternative and Clean Energy Program.

In September 2014, WATT received a $2.1 million contract from the US Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center to pursue solid oxide fuel cell research.

WATT also manufactures fuel cells as a cleaner, quieter, less cumbersome alternative to gas generators in RVs and sailboats. But one of their biggest partnerships was yet to come.

Using gas to generate electric power?

Peoples Natural Gas provides electricity to some 700,000 businesses and homes in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Nehr says that their location “in the heart of Marcellus” means that it’s good business sense that they pursue technologies like fuel cells and cogeneration that will increase consumers’ use of natural gas.

“Gas, in the traditional role, you have just for heating or boiling water, for clothes drying or for cooking,” says Nehr. “We thought if we could be more involved in the electric generation to the home, that would give us a bigger presence with our customers.”

During their pursuit of such novel technologies, they came across a Carnegie Mellon professor who knew about the work being done at WATT. Within 24 hours of a connection, Nehr and Peoples CEO Morgan O’Brien were taking a guided tour of WATT’s facilities.

A WATT fuel cell. Photo courtesy WATT.

Fuel cells generate electricity by chemical reaction. Small and unobtrusive, Finnerty’s systems are about the size of a microwave and are no louder than the fan on a personal computer. He says the fuel cells being designed for Peoples can produce 1.5 kilowatts of energy — enough to cover the 1.2-1.4 kilowatt output that most households use in a 24-hour period. That conceivably allows for a home to operate off the electrical grid.

Solid oxide fuel cells provide immediate environmental benefits by reducing air pollution. The technology virtually eliminates all nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide and other particulate matter emissions, because electricity is driven by chemical reaction, not combustion.

They are also more efficient than internal combustion engines: Finnerty says his fuel cells operate at high-20 to mid-30 percent efficiency rates, while internal combustion engines top out at around 15 percent. And in the future, WATT is looking to develop cogenerative (meaning combined heat and power) systems that use the waste heat from the fuel cells to heat a home’s water, increasing efficiency even further.

That’s no small matter: In 2017, 31.7 percent of U.S. electricity was generated by natural gas — more than any other energy source.

Nehr says that when it comes to looking at on-site electric generation, Peoples wants to know that any program they pursue is economical, reliable and resilient, and beneficial to the environment. The pilot program has yet to play out, but they believe that WATT’s fuel cells can tick off all three boxes.

But although the process emits virtually no greenhouse gases, solid oxide fuel cells that run on natural gas are still fundamentally reliant on fossil fuel extraction. A study released last week in the journal Nature showed that oil and gas production released 60 percent more methane than previous government estimates.

“For any fuel cell […] if you’re using natural gas, you’re still contributing to climate change,” said Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the National Resources Defense Council. He said the ultimate dream for fuel cells has been to use solar power to break apart water to produce hydrogen, essentially providing a way to store solar power. But that technology is still distant.

Greene and Finnerty believe the biggest problem with hydrogen fuel cells comes down to infrastructure: There’s simply no good way to store hydrogen and distribute it across the country. Greene believes the market favors solid oxide fuel cells powered by natural gas because the fuel is readily available and has the existing network to carry it directly into people’s homes.

For now, Nehr notes that this pilot program will take place in a variety of homes, both new and old construction, to determine the feasibility of installation in a variety of settings. He adds that at a time when infrastructure across the nation is aging and in need of replacement, technology like fuel cells provides the potential to power a home simply with a gas line. It “changes the thought process of what we really need from an infrastructure standpoint,” he says.

“We’re really excited about moving the pilot forward quickly and showing that it works,” he says. “As soon as that opportunity presents itself where we’re fully tested and we can go off-grid, so to speak, we’d like to push the envelope there and roll it out to a lot more customers.”

Peoples customers interested in learning more about fuel cells can visit the Peoples website for more information or call Peoples customer service to be added to pilot program waiting list: 1-800-764-0111.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.