WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.—Three years after installing its first Direct FuelCell (DFC) power plants at its Sheraton hotels in Edison and Parsippany, N.J., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. is taking the technology to a new level at its 1,044-room Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. Soon, Starwood will launch a 500-kilowatt power plant there that will make it the largest commercial DFC installation in the world.
Through an agreement with Alliance Star Energy LLC—a joint venture of Alliance Power and FuelCell Energy Inc.—Starwood purchases power generated by four 250-kilowatt DFC plants currently running at the San Diego property. The addition of 500 kilowatts of generating power (two DFC plants) will bring the total capacity to 1.5 megawatts—enough to supply 70 percent of the hotel’s base load power demand.
The San Diego power plants were funded with the assistance of the San Diego Regional Energy Office, administrator for The California Public Utilities Commission’s Self-Generation Incentive Program for the San Diego area. John Lembo, director of energy for Starwood, says DFC plant installations are only possible where incentive programs exist.
“Without them, there would be a 25-year payback period,” Lembo says. “With them, the payback period is about 12 years.”
States currently offering incentives include California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. In some states, DFC plants are considered renewable technology, qualifying them for the incentive programs.
Dan Brdar, president and c.e.o. of Danbury, Conn.-based FuelCell Energy Inc., says his company’s DFC plants provide Starwood with a reliable source of power and gives them an opportunity to differentiate themselves from other chains.
“For anyone to go into a new area, it takes some vision and leadership,” says Brdar, whose company is also exploring DFC plant opportunities with other chains.
How Do Fuel Cells Generate Energy?
The molten carbonate fuel cells Starwood has implemented use natural gas for fuel. The fuel cells extract hydrogen from the fuel and use it to generate electricity and heat. The emissions are near zero in terms of greenhouse gases. In regard to stationary fuel cells of the size used by Starwood, molten carbonate technology provides the most efficient and cleanest generation of power.
A different percentage of electricity needs are met at each hotel that has implemented DFC plants. In addition to hotels in San Diego and New Jersey, the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers in Manhattan also uses fuel cell power. The Westin San Francisco Airport Hotel will soon add two DFC plants to provide approximately 75 percent of its total base electricity load. Waste heat, which can reach temperatures of 600 to 800 degrees, is used at each hotel to heat water for swimming pools and preheat water for guestrooms. Water is run through a heat exchanger to heat it.
The DFC plants are not small by any means. They are the size of a boxcar and weigh 87,000 pounds, are 10 feet high, 28 feet long and 10 feet wide. Most of the plants were installed at the ground floor level but the one at the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers is on the fourth floor.
“We had to do a considerable amount of construction for that one,” Lembo says.
Lembo, who has been with Starwood for 7.5 years, says the company has looked at different options to reduce its energy needs and supply its own power.
“Fuel cells are as ‘green’ as we have gotten,” he says. “Several years ago, PPL Corp. approached us about installing a molten carbonate fuel cell. We determined it was a good idea. PPL owns, operates and maintains the fuel cell [at the Sheraton Edison Hotel Raritan Center]. We purchase power and thermal heat at a discount off of that utility company.”
Each of the two Edison plant installations cost approximately $1.6 million. The New Jersey Clean Energy Program provided $860,000 in funding for each unit. As part of the agreements it signs with utility companies, Starwood benefits from maintenance and parts support for the plants. Fuel cell stacks last three to five years but utilities will replace them up to three times.
“With each plant, we really do not have to worry for about 15 years,” Lembo says.
As mentioned, DFC plants are economically feasible only where incentives are available. Also, they only make sense when natural gas prices are reasonable. The plants at Starwood’s two New Jersey hotels were shut down once already for three months because of high natural gas prices.
Moving forward, Lembo says Starwood will continue to explore the potential for DFC plants at its properties. Even though a typical Starwood property’s electricity demand is about 1 megawatt, some limited-service hotels require as little as 250 kilowatts of power. Just one DFC plant could supply most of the electricity needs of hotels that size.
For hotel companies considering DFC plants, Lembo recommends working closely with a qualified mechanical contracting company.
“Determine what you want to use the plant for,” he says. “Make sure you live and die by your contract.”
Glenn Hasek can be reached at email@example.com.