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.