Professor Jack Brouwer, Associate Director and Chief Technology Officer of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, points out the tri-generation facility that uses biogas from Orange County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant to produce hydrogen, heat and power. | Photo courtesy of the Energy Department.

With rapid fueling, long range and zero harmful emissions, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have a lot to offer consumers. That’s why I was thrilled for the opportunity to visit the world’s first tri-generation facility in California to see first hand the technology that could help fuel our nation’s transition to a clean energy economy.

The impressive tri-gen facility was developed as part of a partnership between the Energy Department, California Air Resources Board, South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Orange County Sanitation District, Southern California Gas Company and private industry. The project is managed by Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., and additional partners include FuelCell Energy and the National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC). The facility is located at the Orange County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant and uses a high-temperature fuel cell and biogas produced from the anaerobic digestion of waste to efficiently produce hydrogen, electricity and heat. The electricity and heat produced are used to power and warm the facility.

The tri-gen facility also produces up to 100 kg of hydrogen per day for a nearby hydrogen fueling station -- enough to fuel 25-50 vehicles. One of three hydrogen stations in Orange County providing hydrogen for FCEVs, the station can quickly refuel a FCEV in only 3 minutes -- fast enough to rival the time spent at any conventional gas station! By having a hydrogen fueling stations on site with the tri-gen facility, the emissions and energy that would otherwise be needed to transport hydrogen to the fueling station are eliminated.

As part of my tour of the tri-gen facility, I was able to ride in a FCEV -- it looks like a conventional gas-powered SUV but operates quietly like an electric vehicle. It was exciting to see these FCEVs that we’ve demonstrated to have a fuel cell system efficiency of up to 59 percent (that’s more than double the efficiency of a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine) and a driving range of more than 250 miles between refueling. The one I rode in is capable of achieving up to 430 miles on a single fill. And of course, FCEVs produce no harmful emissions -- in fact you can cut emissions by 90 percent if you switch from an internal combustion engine to an FCEV.

Seeing these advanced technologies operating in the real world makes it clear that FCEVs and technologies like the tri-gen facility are going to play a vital role in our nation’s future energy and transportation economies. And because FCEVs can boast rapid fueling, long range, and zero harmful emissions, it’s not hard to imagine why.