Pittsburgh-based Peoples Gas has installed one of the nation’s first residential fuel cell systems at a home in Western Pennsylvania, where the unit will use natural gas to generate on-demand electricity.

Peoples has partnered with Watt Fuel Cell Corp., another company based in the region, to launch a field trial aimed at integrating the manufacturer’s Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) system throughout Peoples’ service territory, which includes 740,000 natural gas customers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. 

Peoples spokesman Barry Kukovich told NGI that fuel cells, part of an expanding distributed power system fueled by consumers searching for options off the grid, are not currently used in homes anywhere in the country. Larger units, about the size of shipping containers, manufactured by California-based Bloom Energy and Connecticut-based Doosan Fuel Cell America Inc. are in use to power medium- and large-sized commercial buildings.

Watt’s SOFC is far smaller, less than 30 pounds and about the size of a mini refrigerator. It uses gas delivered to a home via the existing distribution line. Through an electrochemical reaction, the fuel cells essentially transform the energy in gas to electricity with “little to zero emissions,” according to Peoples. The units also work in tandem with the electric grid to generate power on-site when needed.

“With the first installations of the Watt fuel cells into homes becoming a reality, we can see the power of combining the best of our innovation and technology with the rich and plentiful natural resource that sits here in Western Pennsylvania,” Peoples CEO Morgan O’Brien said, referring to the Marcellus and Utica shales. “We are one step closer to having this clean, inexpensive and reliable source of energy available to every family here in the region in a way that will be incredibly responsible to our environment for generations to come.”

O’Brien joined Watt’s board over the summer after the company completed another round of financing. Founded in 2010, Watt started product development in Long Island, NY, and later acquired veteran fuel cell developer Pittsburgh Electric Engines Inc.

Kukovich said while small fuel cell systems have been tried in homes before, the technology proved too costly. Manufacturers of larger units have also acknowledged that their products are expensive.

One key for Watts might be how it makes the SOFC systems. The company has developed a proprietary manufacturing technique similar to 3-D printing that creates an entire fuel cell tube using automated printing processes. Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, essentially uses plastics, resins and metals to “print” a product by adding layers, unlike traditional more costly manufacturing that subtracts or cuts out raw material to create parts.

The Rust Belt has been a proving ground of sorts for such technology. In 2012, the federal government established the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, now called America Makes, in nearby Youngstown, OH, bringing together researchers from throughout the region to advance the technology.

"When we moved to Western Pennsylvania we didn't realize we were moving into the backyard of one of the country's more forward-thinking energy companies. Working with Peoples has allowed us to accelerate our entrance into the residential market,” said Watt COO Caine Finnerty.  "...And, with one of the world's largest natural gas shales right here, Pennsylvania couldn't be a more perfect place to launch our residential product."

Watt’s SOFC also can use propane to generate electricity remotely. The company fulfilled its first commercial order last month, sending multiple shipments to Erwin Hymer Group North America Inc., which manufactures motorhomes. 

The field trial, Peoples said, is also aimed at advancing Watt’s commercialization nationally and paring the company with other natural gas utilities.