Jail Opens Door to More Energy Self-Sufficiency

Times Staff Writer

A massive Bay Area jail will unveil a state-of-the-art cell today, but it’s not the kind that holds prisoners.

Instead, Alameda County officials will show off California’s largest fuel cell, a battery-like system expected to cut the Santa Rita Jail’s yearly electric bill by more than $260,000.

The $6.1-million undertaking, funded in part with $2.4 million in government grants and incentives, is among a spate of large energy-saving projects that have been cropping up at government and large commercial sites where uninterrupted power is a must.

“This is the wave of the future, and we should be using all of these different technologies,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, clean-energy advocate at the Sacramento-based Environment California. “It’s great to see government institutions helping to lead the way.”

Big power users such as the jail, many of which had their electricity cut off sporadically during California’s 2000-01 energy crisis, have gradually found ways to supply some of their own power and reduce their reliance on the electric grid that energizes much of the state.


That motivation was reinforced by a crippling power failure that swept through the Midwest and Northeast in August 2003 and again by the recent California heat wave, which pushed the state’s power system to the brink of rolling blackouts.

The sprawling jail in Dublin was a prime candidate. Santa Rita, with 4,000 inmates, is the third-largest county detention center in the state. Its yearly power bill of $1.6 million underscores its heft.

Matthew Muniz, energy program manager for Alameda County, said the jail saw its per-kilowatt-hour cost almost double during the state’s power crunch five years ago. And on top of that, Santa Rita was kicked off the electricity grid several times under its agreement as a major power user with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

In 2001 and 2002, the jail installed a three-acre rooftop solar electric system that reduced its daytime reliance on the PG&E; system by 30%. The county studied ways to save even more -- and sought a solution that would provide environmental benefits as well.

“The fuel cell wasn’t the cheapest, but it was compelling enough, and the savings was enough,” Muniz said. “And it fits in with our sustainability program.”

After accounting for the grants and incentives, the project cost $3.7 million, much of that financed through a 15-year loan provided through the California Energy Commission. The loan payments and leftover costs are funded entirely by the project’s cost savings under a performance contract with project designer Chevron Energy Solutions and the fuel cell maker, officials said.

The system, which is expected to repay that investment through energy savings during those first 15 years, is designed to last 25 years.

The hydrogen fuel cell will provide 1 megawatt of electricity to the jail continuously -- enough to supply more than half the facility’s annual consumption of 16 million kilowatt-hours. Together with the 1.2-megawatt solar system, Santa Rita can provide as much as 80% of its own power during peak-demand summer months, a period when the state’s grid feels the most strain.

Fuel cells come in many forms. All convert the energy in hydrogen from natural gas or another fuel into electricity, but without producing harmful emissions.

The system at Santa Rita starts with natural gas, strips the hydrogen from it using steam and forces a recurring chemical reaction inside a stack of fuel cells that is heated to 1,100 degrees.

The process produces direct current power -- which is converted to usable alternating current power -- as well as heat, water and clean exhaust.

The cell was made by Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy, and its waste heat is redirected to the jail to heat water for showers and washing laundry.

In addition, Santa Rita’s type of cell can be fueled with non-hydrocarbon and potentially less-expensive sources such as gases from landfills and waste-water treatment, said Jack Brouwer, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center in Irvine.

“This is a technology that is still emerging ... but we can already see today installations that are cost-effective for customers,” he said. “It is one strategy that we can use to mitigate the very real threat we have for rolling blackouts in the future.”

The California Independent System Operator, which runs three-fourths of the state’s power grid, is applauding Santa Rita’s growing self-sufficiency. On July 24, Cal-ISO found itself struggling to satisfy power demand that surpassed 50,000 megawatts -- a level that wasn’t forecast for six more years, spokesman Gregg Fishman said.

“To see this actually happening is exciting,” he said of the Santa Rita project. “It won’t make a huge difference ... but we’ll take every megawatt we can get.”