Combined heat and power systems are not new to process heating operations although they are not yet practical for many smaller operations. That may be changing though, as the next generation of fuel cells that produce both electric power and heat while saving energy have been put into to the test at a diverse group of West Coast organizations.

ClearEdge Power of Hillsboro, Ore., will install its ClearEdge5 combined heat and power fuel cell system at 10 different businesses in California and Oregon, thanks to a $2.8 million combined industry and government award by the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The federal portion of funding for this award was provided by DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fuel Cell Technologies Program. PNNL will monitor the systems and measure the energy savings the systems are expected to provide.

The fuel cells have been installed in commercial buildings, but the lessons learns also may benefit smaller industrial process operations. The ClearEdge5 system is compact and fueled by natural gas from existing pipelines. Inside the fuel cell system, natural gas is chemically broken down into a hydrogen-rich gas that reacts with oxygen in air to form energy, producing electricity, with heat as a byproduct. The electricity produced by the fuel cell is used to power the building.

The excess heat generated by the fuel cell is released into the facility's HVAC system to provide space heating to the building, or it can be used for hot water or other needs for the facility. Excess electricity produced, but not consumed by the building, is then sold back to a local utility company.