A largely unused industrial site in Bridgeport is being prepared for construction of the largest fuel cell power plant in North America, giving a possible boost to the alternative fuel and economic development in Connecticut's largest city.
Connecticut has long boasted of its relationship with fuel cells, at times subsidizing its use, including the Bridgeport project. The alternative fuel makes electricity from chemical reactions involving hydrogen and oxygen, producing only water vapor as a product.
Until recently, Connecticut was home to two large fuel cell manufacturers. FuelCell Energy Inc. in Danbury will build, operate and maintain the Bridgeport plant under contract to Dominion Resources Inc.
UTC Power was the state's other large manufacturer, but parent company United Technologies Corp, looking to focus on aerospace businesses, sold its fuel cell subsidiary to an Oregon company.
The Bridgeport plant will produce 14.9 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 15,000 homes, using a process that converts natural gas into electricity. Power will be sold to Connecticut Light & Power, the state's largest utility, in a 15-year contract.
The project, valued at $70 million to $80 million, will be completed by late next year or early 2014.
"When compared with some other renewable or clean energy that's intermittent - wind or solar - you have clean energy that is reliable as a base load that also is cost-competitive," said James Eck, vice president of business development for the Richmond, Va.,-based Dominion.
The plant is part of a state program to increase renewable and clean energy projects. FuelCell Energy is receiving $5 million in loans to be repaid to the state Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority and a $1.5 million grant.
Fuel cells may eventually be more cost-effective and operate without subsidies, said analyst Andy Pusateri of Edward Jones.
"Right now it's more symbolic," he said. "I don't think it's cost-effective right now to run on a large scale." David Kooris
The project is the largest to be signed in the administration of Mayor Bill Finch, who was elected in 2007, said David Kooris, director of Bridgeport's office of planning and economic development.
The plant, which will be visible from busy Interstate 95, will give Bridgeport the chance to show itself off to millions of commuters as a fuel cell center even if the source of pride is no architectural gem. It will resemble an electric utility substation in a landscaped area ringed by trees, Kooris said.
"This will convey to people not only what we're trying to achieve, but what we are achieving," he said.
CL&P agreed to buy power from the plant for 15 years at $89 a megawatt hour, Eck said. The price was competitively bid, said Al Lara, a spokesman for CL&P parent company Northeast Utilities.
The price for power is higher than for conventional fossil fuel sources, said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Policy. The cost difference will be paid by utility ratepayers, he said.
The benefits are a new and reliable in-state supply of energy and job creation in the fuel cell industry, he said.
The fuel cell plant is a good project for Dominion, but shareholders will not likely see it as a big deal, Pusateri said.
"I don't think it can hurt the company," he said. "It looks good; they're working toward sustainability. From shareholders' perspective, it won't make a big difference," he said.
The plant represents a small share of what Dominion does. Its 15 megawatts is a fraction of the 30,000 megawatts Dominion plants generate, Pusateri said. And the investment of up to $80 million compares with $4.5 billion in capital spending a year, he said.
Shares of FuelCell Energy jumped 7.5 percent, to 94 cents, on the news of FuelCell's sale to Dominion on Dec. 14.
FuelCell Energy did not return a call seeking comment.
Eck said the attraction for Dominion of the Bridgeport plant is that it expands the company's fuel diversity. And it gives the company experience with fuel cells, he said.
"Fuel cell technology is poised for growth in the U.S.," Eck said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.