Saving Fuel To Save Lives: Navy Tests Fuel Cell For Diesel Generator Replacement

by Dean Frankel, Analyst, Lux Research 

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) demonstrated a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) system for diesel generator replacement. The project showed that the SOFC system saved 44% in fuel while delivering similar power as that of a comparable military diesel generator used in the field.

Cutting fuel consumption, especially in forward operating bases, reduces expenditures related to shipping the fuel through convoys, but more importantly reduces the number of convoys needed to supply a base. Fuel convoys have been the targets of many attacks in recent conflicts, and the military accounts for the safety and loss of life of those who protect its supply chain as a cost of supplying power to its soldiers.

The demonstration utilized a 10 kW SOFC system in comparison to diesel generators. SOFC systems have a higher CAPEX than diesel generators, and require a $5/gallon diesel price to generate power at an equal levelized cost of energy (LCOE). For larger diesel generator systems (10+ kW) efficiencies improve with size, so SOFC systems have a higher LCOE than 10+ kW diesel generators until the price of diesel reaches around $7-8 / gallon. Given the military’s high cost of maintaining a fuel supply chain to forward operating bases, it is likely that their fuel costs greatly exceed the break even threshold of $5/gallon.

The SOFC unit contains a reformation system that accepts high-sulfur fuels such as JP-8 jet fuel and reforms it into a hydrogen gas acceptable for the fuel cell unit. An added benefit of the system is significantly reduced ambient noise from the fuel cell system as compared to the traditional military generator. While the demonstration project is seeking a diesel generator replacement, there is also significant benefits to microgrid architectures which work in tandem with diesel generators.

Lux Research’s July 2013 State of the Market Report: Batteries Included, reviews some of the proposed microgrid architectures and their system benefits. The efficiency of diesel generators is significantly improved when coupled with solar photovoltaic generation as well as the combination of solar generation and energy storage. Additionally, Lux Research found that the diesel generator can be downsized in both architectures, which reduces operating and capital costs of the system.

The military is exploring several microgrid architectures which employ traditional diesel generators, fuel cells, renewable generation, and energy storage. The combination of these technologies will significantly improve the fuel consumption, resiliency, and flexibility of forward operating bases. Lux Research anticipates publishing a report in the near future on military microgrids and their system benefits. EDITOR’S NOTE: Of related interest, is a media partner for the Microgrid Deployment Workshop, November 8-9, 2013 in Cancun, Mexico. Hosted by HOMER Energy, the workshop will feature technology experts and project managers from around the world discussing microgrid systems for remote, off-grid, and island environments. Early bird discount is good through October 20.