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Fuel Cells Support California District's Green Efforts

IUSD will install 12 ClearEdge5 units, which could save the district up to $1.14 million in operating costs over 20 years.

Irvine Unified School District in Southern California is ramping up its green efforts by installing fuel cells on two of its high school campuses. The district has already launched a solar power initiative that will place photovoltaic arrays on several sites; the fuel cells will be used to heat facilities and to generate extra power.

The fuel cell installations will take place on two campuses--Woodbridge High School and University High School. The installations will heat and power the schools' pools and provide supplementary power. The ClearEdge5 micro combined heat and power (micro-CHP) fuel cells, manufactured and installed by ClearEdge Power, are designed to convert natural gas into heat and electricity using a non-combustive chemical process that results in only negligible emissions. IUSD will install six of the refrigerator-sized, 5 kilowatt units at each of the two schools. The installations are expected to save the district $18,000 to $28,000 per school per year and will, according to information released by ClearEdge, cut CO₂ emissions by 37 percent at those two campuses.

As part of the deal, ClearEdge will maintain the systems at Woodbridge and University for five years. ClearEdge also provides fuel cell system performance monitoring and offers an iPhone app and computer software that allow users to track power generation, heat generation, and carbon offset in real time.

The upfront cost of the deal will be about $329,000, offset in part by a program from the California Public Utilities Commission that provides credits for self-generated power, according to information published by the district.

IUSD spokesman Ian Hanigan explained that the fuel cell project is part of a much larger district-wide green initiative, one that incorporates power generation, conservation, facilities design, and education.

"In this fiscal environment, with school funding continuing to drop precipitously, IUSD has been pulling out all the stops to get the most out of every penny," Hanigan told THE Journal. "Recycling programs have been ramped up district-wide; conservation campaigns are being led by our students, parents, and staff; and new schools are being constructed with latest energy-efficient technologies. Our decision to contract with ClearEdge to purchase fuel cells aligns with these efforts, as does our solar project."

The solar project, launched in partnership with SunEdison and SPG Solar, involves photovoltaic installations on building roofs at 16 IUSD sites. Those installations are expected to save the district an additional $8 million over 20 years. The structure of that deal will allow the district to install solar systems without incurring any upfront capital costs.

"SunEdison will finance, build, operate, and maintain the units, enabling the company to take advantage of tax credits that public agencies can’t leverage," Hanigan said. "In turn, IUSD will purchase energy at a reduced rate that is predictable long-term." He added the solar installations will offset 57 million pounds of CO₂ over 20 years. "That’s equivalent to removing more than 5,600 cars from the road for a year," he said. "In addition, these units will be integrated into our district curriculum, allowing students to learn about solar power while monitoring their own energy consumption in real time."

The first phase of the solar project will be formally completed March 16.

Gwen E. Gross, outgoing IUSD superintendent of schools, explained that the district considered using solar at the two high schools but decided on fuel cells as the less invasive and less expensive option.

"We had initially considered a solar thermal solution for both Woodbridge and University High Schools; however, it would have required us to retrofit the roofs at both schools in order to accommodate the solar panels," Gross said in a prepared statement released last week. "ClearEdge Power was able to offer a more cost-effective solution, provide electricity in addition to heat, and still reduce our schools' carbon footprint. With the ClearEdge Power fuel cell solution, we made the right choice for our students and our schools."

IUSD serves more than 27,000 K-12 students in total in 20 elementary schools, two K-8 schools, five middle schools, and six high schools (including an independent study school). The district also operates an early learning center and an adult school, along with a support program for homeschooling families. Further information about the district's solar power generation program can be found here. Further information about its fuel cell installations can be found here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at .