ConnDOT considers fuel cells to run trains

The Connecticut Department of Transportation may consider using fuel cell technology to power parts of the New Haven Metro-North train system as a way of taking pressure off the city’s energy grid, after research by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering found fuel cells to be a feasible alternative.

The study — which CASE conducted on behalf of ConnDOT under a state legislative mandate — concluded that fuel cell technology may be energy- and cost-efficient if it is correctly implemented. The technology can be applied most readily at rail yards and passenger stations, but it can also be used to power trains along small stretches of the railway line, according to the report. The study was presented to the state legislature last week.

By 2015, the New Haven train system will account for 0.7 percent of the total electric energy consumption of the state, second only to the Foxwood casino, said Emanuel Merisotis, clerk of the Environment Committee of the General Assembly.

“You’re talking about close to 80 megawatts of power — and that’s pretty significant,” he said. “We have a unique rail service in that it’s all electric, but there’s a movement on around the world now to push fuel cells on to trains.”

CASE Director Richard Strauss said fuel cell technology is well suited to rail yards and stations because nearby buildings can make use of the heat that fuel cells generate while producing electricity. Fuel cells convert fuel into hydrogen, which then yields heat and electricity. Using this heat in a constructive way can increase the energy efficiency of fuel cells by up to 50 percent, he said.

“Heat, for instance, can be used to regulate temperatures in buildings,” Strauss said. “If you have a matched use for heat and electricity, fuel cells become much more attractive.”

The report said installing fuel cells at Metro North’s construction sites — the New Haven rail yard and the planned stations at West Haven, Milford and Fairfield — would dramatically reduce installation costs.

But Strauss said it would not be financially prudent for New Haven to use fuel cells to permanently power all 300 of trains that run daily because of the difficulty of finding space for the cells and of locating nearby facilities with a need for heat energy.

At a historic cost of 13 cents to 27 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to the 11 cent per kilowatt hour running cost of traditional power plants, expense remains a barrier to large-scale fuel cell use, the study said.

But officials interviewed said they think fuel cell prices may drop in the future as the technology improves. If oil prices continue to rise, fuel cells may become even more financially attractive to a state where power demand outweighs supply, Meristosis said.

The technology may bring about some long-term economic gains to the city, officials said. Connecticut houses two major fuel cell producers — Danbury-based Fuel Cell Energy and United Technologies Corporation — which means investing in the fuel cell technology could help promote a burgeoning local industry, Strauss said.

Rich Harris, spokesman for Governor Jodi M. Rell, said the governor supports the use of fuel cell technology because she wants to see the industry gain ground in Connecticut.

“Connecticut has been a leader in the fuel cell industry for quite some time and the Governor is greatly interested in the future of the state’s economy,” he said.

Investing in the technology may yield additional financial gain, since using a local power supply eliminates the possibility of infrastructure taxation and bolsters the city’s economic independence, Meristosis said.

Officials interviewed said the report responded to the urgent need to find alternative energy sources, considering current energy debates.

“Beyond just its useful findings, [the report] was a good springboard to using fuel cell and other types of alternative energy in other places where the public gathers besides train stations,” said Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County.

ConnDOT officials told legislators at a hearing last week in Hartford that it plans to explore whether fuel cells can be implemented at ongoing and upcoming construction sites for Metro-North.

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