Using what was widely considered to be “cutting edge” fuel-cell technology, Santa Barbara’s El Estero Wastewater treatment plant has been turning its methane-heavy bio gas byproduct into energy since 2005. Unfortunately, due to a particularly troublesome sulfur compound found in the gas, the fuel-cell technology used for the conversion has been increasingly ineffective at turning the otherwise useless — and natural — emissions into electricity and heat for the facility.

Hoping to remedy this problem, Santa Barbara city councilmembers unanimously voted this week to void the contract with the fuel-cell providers, have the cells removed, and begin the process of replacing them with a clean-burning internal combustion engine. Explaining that the switch is agreeable to even the fuel-cell providers themselves, El Estero’s facility and energy manager Jim Dewey summed it up: “The bottom line is, they could never figure out how to filter out the sulfur and fuel cells really need a nice clean fuel source … This is a mutually agreeable termination that allows us to continue toward our goal of being a self-sustaining zero net energy office.”

In fact, according to Dewey, once in place, the engine has the potential to provide even more electricity — 500 kilowatt hours to be exact, or enough power for approximately 750 local area homes — than the fuel cell technology even if it had been operating at maximum capacity. “Ultimately, we will be seeing better output and more reliable results,” summed up Dewey. If all goes according to plan, the new engines should start being installed before the end of the year.


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