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Fuel Cells: The Future of Energy At Ramapo College

(PDF) (DOC) (JPG)August 13, 2001

(Mahwah) – If you tried to picture a machine that would help supply energy for a college campus, what would it look like? Probably an immense, noisy generator with pistons and gears grinding and smoky fumes being emitted in the process.

Yet, up by Bischoff Hall, a residence hall on the Ramapo College of New Jersey campus, a nondescript, plain white box about the size of a truck container sits unceremoniously ushering in a new era of alternative energy production at Ramapo. Its technical name is a fuel cell, a relatively compact, environmentally friendly, and-here’s the best part-much less expensive way to help bring safe, reliable energy to the campus.

“This is tip-of-the-iceberg, state-of-the-art technology. We’re on the cutting edge with this,” states William Alagna, director of facilities. To the best of Alagna’s knowledge, Ramapo is the first higher education institution in New Jersey, perhaps on the East Coast, to employ fuel cell technology.

How this 21st century power arrived at Ramapo is a story based on environmental philosophies, pioneer attitude, common sense and a growing need. Alagna began the quest to find a new “uninterruptible power source” (UPS) for the campus when the computer data department requested a backup system to ensure that important information would not be at risk in case of a blackout, brownout or complete loss of power due to a storm. His investigation led him to space age technology brought down to earth. Fuel cells are based on a simple concept first conceived more than 160 years ago by a Welsh judge, Sir William Grove. They convert hydrogen from any hydrocarbon fuel (in Ramapo’s case, natural gas is used) into electricity. They have been used by NASA since the 1960s and more recently to power the space shuttle. A popular energy source for years on military bases, increasing oil prices and the deregulation of the electricity supply industry have made fuel cells an attractive alternative for private energy suppliers, hospitals, large computer firms and the automotive industry.

Ramapo is in the forefront of fuel cell energy production on college campuses. As of April, fuel cell #1 has been supplying 80 percent of the electrical requirements of Bischoff Hall and the lighting in the parking area. Last September 1, a truck crane swung fuel cell #2 into place to supply heat to an academic building plus power to the International Telecommunications Center and the Center for Computing and Information Systems. This second fuel cell became fully operative at Ramapo in November.

“It’s clean electricity. It’s an environmentally-safe unit because the only by-product is water,” said Alagna. “Bottom line: The fuel cell provides us with significant electricity at a much, much reduced cost.” In fact, Alagna is hard pressed to think of any disadvantages to the fuel cell and runs down a long list of advantages. Peace of mind is a big one. Although the fuel cells are not the primary source of energy at Ramapo, they significantly reduce the amount we purchase from the utility company and the backup they provide ensures that the campus can produce enough energy during an emergency situation or temporary loss of power.

Cutting costs and saving money is another major advantage of this new technology. According to estimates, the fuel cell can produce electricity at approximately three to four cents per kilowatt-hour as opposed to the approximate eleven cents per kilowatt-hour now paid to the local utility company. Besides the impressive seven to eight cent savings in the electrical bill, a rebate from the U.S. Department of Defense, shaved an extra $200,000 off the price of each unit. Each fuel cell cost $600,000 after the rebate for a turnkey unit, meaning the cell is delivered, installed and running for that price. Since Ramapo’s purchase, fuel cells have gained popularity and the price has increased approximately $350,000, estimated Alagna.

Added to the financial factors are other savings. The water given off as a by-product of the process is usable for heat, drinking water and domestic purposes including showering and laundering. Low maintenance is an added plus of the technology. With no moving parts-the inside looks like a stack of plates similar to a car battery-there is no combustion so there is very little breakage and no need for oiling, greasing or priming a motor. In the long run, Alagna estimates that the fuel cells will pay for themselves in about four years. As a comparison, solar panels, which were touted years ago as an alternative energy source, take about 13 years to repay the investment.

“Green issues” were also a deciding factor in pioneering fuel cell technology. Richard Roberts, associate vice president for Administration and Finance, points to Ramapo’s long history of saving energy to save the earth. Energy efficient lights, reduced consumption showerheads and bathroom fixtures, plus other modifications and monitoring systems have drastically cut Ramapo’s fuel and water usage. To their credit, the adjectives “clean,” “efficient,” “reliable,” “durable,” and “earth-friendly,” that keep popping up in conversations and writings about fuel cells seem to make them a perfect “green purchase.”

“We have a problem of global climate change and we’d better do something about it,” says James Quigley, Ph.D., executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability, a group of fifteen institutions of higher learning throughout the state working together to reduce the environmental impact of campus operations. The state Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to secure a pledge on the part of New Jersey’s higher education institutions to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. “Fuel cells fit in very nicely with this agenda,” adds Quigley.

With all the news and excitement over fuel cells, the units themselves quietly work away with hardly anyone noticing them, bringing Ramapo College energy, a greener world and savings to take to the bank.

For more information, contact Jim Quigley, (201) 684-7031, or William Alagna, (201) 684–7666.


About Ramapo College

Ramapo College of New Jersey is the state’s premier public liberal arts college and is committed to academic excellence through interdisciplinary and experiential learning, and international and intercultural understanding. The comprehensive college is situated among the beautiful Ramapo Mountains, is within commuting distance to New York City, was named one of the 50 Most Beautiful College Campuses in America by CondeNast Traveler, and boasts the best on-campus housing in New Jersey per Established in 1969, Ramapo College offers bachelor’s degrees in the arts, business, data science, humanities, social sciences and the sciences, as well as in professional studies, which include business, education, nursing and social work. In addition, the College offers courses leading to teacher certification at the elementary and secondary levels, and offers graduate programs leading to master’s degrees in Accounting, Applied Mathematics, Business Administration, Contemporary Instructional Design, Computer Science, Creative Music Technology, Data Science, Educational Leadership, Nursing, Social Work and Special Education, as well as a Doctor of Nursing Practice.


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