June 28, 2012

Not in My Backyard: Safety of Bloom Energy Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Questioned

CECON Project Manager Dr. Stanley Tocker was appointed to the Delaware State Coastal Zone Industrial Control Board by Governor Markell in 2011. Stan’s role on the committee is to provide a scientist’s perspective on issues that come before the committee. Previously, Stan served for eight years as a member of the Delaware Environmental Control Board.

Last week, a hearing was held on proposed Solid Oxide Fuel Cells to be built in the state of Delaware. The prior approval of this new energy technology was being challenged. Stan’s insights on that hearing are below:

Fuel cells are an old source of electric power that periodically receives peaks of publicity as new developments in the field occur. The latest advance is solid oxide fuel cells that convert natural gas to electricity without “burning” it. Hydrocarbon, mainly methane, gas is converted to hydrogen which is oxidized by an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity. This is facilitated by certain proprietary rare earth metal catalyst combinations. The Delaware Natural Resource and Environmental Control Board (DNREC) recently approved the construction of such a 47 megawatt facility.

As a new member of the Delaware Coastal Zone Industrial Control Board, I had the privilege of participating in evaluating an appeal for rejection to DNREC's approval of the Bloom Energy facility because of alleged uncertainties about safety and environmental issues. The appeal was eventually voted down because of the question of “standing” involving the person leading the appeal. It was evident that the public present was worried about all of the things that relate to any new nearby manufacturing technology such as pollution, fires and explosions. 

During the hearing, I asked several questions of the proposed plant management related to maintenance and recycle of the spent fuel cell catalysts and procedures taken to avoid pollution during operation and down times. These questions were answered by Bloom Energy plant management to my satisfaction.

The all-day meeting was an example of democracy in action. Several experts testified on both sides of the issue of approval of the DNREC decision. Delaware for the most part can be proud of the unique Coastal Zone Act for protection of our coast as well as the continuing follow-up attempts by the state officials to be fair in dealing with the provisions of this act.

While I have some concerns about who can have “standing” to bring an appeal of decisions made about permits by DNREC, I believe that he Coastal Zone Control Board plays an important role in keeping Delaware great.

Stanley Tocker graduated from Johns Hopkins University and earned his  Ph.D., in Organic Chemistry from Florida State University. Stan has 40 years of experience in organic synthesis, polymers, pesticides, formulations, patent strategy and chemical products liability. He holds many  patents and is currently a Vice President and Project Manager for The CECON Group. All of CECON’s technically trained project managers add value to the expert selection process as they draw on their extensive training and experience to discern the specific technical expertise needed on client jobs.

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