Could natural gas be used to power your entire home?

A new partnership between Peoples Natural Gas and Mt. Pleasant-based WATT Fuel Cell will explore the feasibility of using solid oxide fuel cells powered by natural gas to provide electricity to area homes.

“We see this as a pioneering effort in having folks think differently about how they power their homes,” says Jeff Nehr, VP of production and business development for Peoples.

Fuel cells take hydrogen, in this case derived from natural gas, combine it with oxygen and convert it to electricity. Heat is the only byproduct, and because there is no combustion, it emits virtually no greenhouse gases.

“The whole system is intrinsically safer,” says WATT CEO, Caine Finnerty.

Later this summer, Peoples will launch a 100-home pilot program using WATT fuel cells to determine if the technology can be a cleaner, more efficient way to power homes across Western Pennsylvania.

“It’s like one degree of separation.” 

Dr. Caine Finnerty’s lifelong fascination with the transformative potential of fuel cells began 20 years ago when he was a PhD student at Keele University in his native England.

After stints in Buffalo and elsewhere in the U.S., Finnerty opened WATT Fuel Cell in Long Island, NY in 2010.  What distinguished WATT in the industry was their 3D printing process, which allows the cells to be constructed in a matter of minutes, as opposed to taking hundreds of hours.

In 2014, Finnerty received a call from a friend who told him about a potential business opportunity in Western PA.

“It’s like one degree of separation,” said Finnerty about the close-knit fuel cell community. Particularly intriguing to him was that the business, Pittsburgh Electric Engine, spun off from Westinghouse.

Dr. Caine Finnerty. Photo courtesy WATT Fuel Cell.

“In our industry, if you open any textbook on fuel cells, the first 30 percent is always Westinghouse,” he said. This imprimatur convinced him to check out the operation firsthand.

Finnerty said that he and Electric Engine’s owner, Owen Taylor, got along immediately. More importantly, the two companies’ specialties overlapped: Electric Engine spent years researching the materials used to construct fuel cells, while WATT’s specialty was in its super quick 3D printing process.

As Finnerty recalls, he originally planned to acquire the company and move operations back to Long Island. But Mt. Pleasant Borough Supervisor, Jack Rutkowski, convinced him to meet with Westmoreland County’s Industrial Development Corporation (WCIDC) to see if there could be an arrangement made to keep the operation in Mt. Pleasant.  

Turns out it could: Within 24 hours, Finnerty was back in Long Island informing his company that they were relocating to Mt. Pleasant. All but one member of the team made the move to Western PA.  

“When WATT Fuel Cell approached us about their product and prospective growth, immediately we were intrigued by their potential,” wrote Jason Rigone, executive director of WCIDC.

“The opportunity to transition the building located in rural Mt. Pleasant Township from traditional manufacturing to one that manufactures next-generation fuel cells was something we fully embraced.”

WCIDC runs the Mt. Pleasant Glass Centre industrial park, which includes WATT’s roughly 39,000-square-foot operation. The state helped the move along by contributing a $300,000 grant and $370,000 loan from the Commonwealth Financing Authority’s Alternative and Clean Energy Program.

In September 2014, WATT received a $2.1 million contract from the US Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center to pursue solid oxide fuel cell research.

WATT also manufactures fuel cells as a cleaner, quieter, less cumbersome alternative to gas generators in RVs and sailboats. But one of their biggest partnerships was yet to come.

Using gas to generate electric power?

Peoples Natural Gas provides electricity to some 700,000 businesses and homes in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Nehr says that their location “in the heart of Marcellus” means that it’s good business sense that they pursue technologies like fuel cells and cogeneration that will increase consumers’ use of natural gas.

“Gas, in the traditional role, you have just for heating or boiling water, for clothes drying or for cooking,” says Nehr. “We thought if we could be more involved in the electric generation to the home, that would give us a bigger presence with our customers.”

During their pursuit of such novel technologies, they came across a Carnegie Mellon professor who knew about the work being done at WATT. Within 24 hours of a connection, Nehr and Peoples CEO Morgan O’Brien were taking a guided tour of WATT’s facilities.