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Blogs > FuelCell Energy’s Paul Fukumoto Can See the Tri-gen Difference – From His Office Window

FuelCell Energy’s Paul Fukumoto Can See the Tri-gen Difference – From His Office Window

FuelCell Energy Communications Team

June 3, 2024

FuelCell Energy Video Intro (1200 x 630 px)

Looking through the window of a trailer set up as offices and meeting space at the Port of Long Beach, FuelCell Energy’s Paul Fukumoto can see more clearly now.

Looking through the window of a trailer set up as offices and meeting space at the Port of Long Beach, FuelCell Energy’s Paul Fukumoto can see more clearly now.

Fair skies have replaced the fumes and soot that for decades lingered over the sprawling Southern California hub that is the first stop of many of its vehicles shipped into the U.S. Trucks powered by hydrogen hum back and forth past his window, traversing the complex, leaving not a trace of smoke or exhaust in their wakes. Lightness and promise have replaced what once was, right where he sits, a dark and foreboding past.

``Fifteen years ago, there would be a lot more soot, a lot more pollution,’’ says Fukumoto, director of technology and product solutions for FuelCell Energy.

Today, that air is getting even clearer thanks to the world’s first “Tri-gen” system, developed by FuelCell Energy and now in operation at Toyota’s main port of entry. The breakthrough Tri-gen system uses fuel cells to convert methane-rich directed biogas into electricity, clean hydrogen and reusable water to power the sprawling port facility without a hint of harm to the neighboring ecosystem.

Tri-gen’s size and scalability make it a clean energy solution for ports and other industrial sites under pressure to reduce emissions. The Tri-gen system takes up less space than three basketball courts and converts a stream of directed biogas, sourced from agriculture waste and sludge, into 2.3 megawatts of electricity, 1,200 kilograms of hydrogen and 1,400 gallons of water per day.

California and FuelCell Energy: Leaders in the Hydrogen Economy

With grass-roots funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Tri-gen was developed initially as part of a project in 2011 at the Orange County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant in Fountain Valley, California. In September, it began operations at the Port of Long Beach in partnership with Toyota, one of the world’s largest companies.

California policymakers, local officials, media and executives from FuelCell Energy and Toyota converged at the Port of Long Beach on May 2 to see the system in action.

“Tri-gen demonstrates that hydrogen-based energy benefits businesses, delivers zero-emission transportation for light- and heavy-duty transportation, supports improved air quality in local communities, reduces water usage, and delivers immediate and long-term benefits to the environment,” said Chief Executive Jason Few. “It’s only fitting that Tri-gen would debut here among those who understand the necessity of hydrogen in meeting our need for zero-emission, clean energy.”

For Fukumoto, a native Californian, overseeing the project for FuelCell Energy was personal.

``I admit it's very easy to get on board this because with fuel cell, it's clean air,’’ says Fukumoto, an engineer by training who has worked at FuelCell Energy for the past seven years. ``I'm a clean-air person. I grew up in Southern California, so I know the days when there were third stage smog alerts and we had to stay indoors. Just the little steps that they've done, it makes big differences.”

The Biogas Solution

Of special note is the fact the system runs on biogas, joining three other biogas projects by the company in California.

“I really like the biogas concept because, as renewable energy, it’s a circular economy,” he says.

Toyota uses hydrogen made from the Tri-gen system to power all its port operations, to power the fleet of fuel cell trucks it operates at the port and for the hydrogen-powered vehicles arriving on ships from Japan. The water created by the fuel cell technology is then used to wash the nearly 200,000 new vehicles arriving there annually before being recycled to begin the powering process all over again.

“The goal of our collaboration with FuelCell Energy was to find sustainable solutions for the TLS vehicle processing facility here at the Port of Long Beach as part of our goal to remove carbon dioxide emissions from our operations,” said Group Vice President of Sustainability and Regulatory Affairs at Toyota, Tom Stricker. “This groundbreaking facility shows that there are ways to reduce our emissions and burden on natural resources with scalable technology based on hydrogen.”

Toyota and Fuel Cell Energy have estimated that more than 9,000 tons of CO2 will disappear annually from the California ecosystem.

``We're taking organic waste and even sewer waste, avoiding that venting of methane or putting that in landfills and instead putting that to a purposeful use, making hydrogen and electricity here in the port,’’ Fukumoto says. ``They don't have a lot of resources in the port. They don't have a lot of space to put large solar fields. So, knowing that we get both clean air and low or zero carbon emissions out of these systems is something that's really easy to get excited about.’’

‘It’s Going to Happen’

Fukumoto isn’t just talk. He has been driving a Mirai, Toyota’s hydrogen-fueled car, for three years. So, he gets more than peace and quiet from watching the hydrogen-powered trucks move Toyota’s fleet at the port.

``You can see it,’’ he says, before correcting himself. ``Actually, you don’t see it. You can see that it's not there. The team here loves that.’’

On the immediate horizon, says Fukumoto, is the opportunity to charge battery electric vehicles with the excess power generated from the Tri-gen plant. Beyond that is the opportunity to replicate its success at other ports in California, and ultimately worldwide. Influential figures such as billionaire Bill Gates have extolled the virtues of hydrogen, deeming it a veritable Swiss Army Knife in the ongoing battle against the escalating threat of greenhouse gas emissions.

And its potential versatility is, in Fukumoto’s words, ``endless.’’ It can be harnessed for a multiple number of purposes, ranging from power generation and energy storage to the cleaner production of essential commodities like fertilizer, ammonia, and steel. Moreover, hydrogen holds promise as a fuel alternative across various modes of transportation, including trucks, cars, ships, and aircraft.

``We have infrastructure, and we have the demand,’’ says Fukumoto. ``They are the two separate portions. The demand is coming, with fuel cell trucks and buses being made by other automakers. These are well-known stable companies. That demand, plus all the other applications of hydrogen, I can't tell you that exact timing. But it's going to happen.’’

FuelCell Energy's 2023 Sustainability Report is now available. Learn more