Innovation Delaware: Energy & Clean Technology

If you want an example of Delaware’s leadership in clean technology, you can’t do much better than this: “Bloom Energy, at our Delaware facility, is the world’s primary producer of fuel cell technology,” says David McCullough, VP for communications for Bloom Energy. 

Fuel cells are one of the most promising forms of alternative energy. They produce electricity by means of a chemical reaction — usually involving hydrogen and oxygen. 

Bloom’s technology grew out of a NASA-funded project two decades ago to convert Martian atmospheric gases to oxygen for propulsion and life support. The project was led by K.R. Sridhar, Bloom’s founder and CEO. In 2006, Bloom shipped its first 5kW field trial unit of what it calls its energy servers. However, they became popularly known as “Bloom Boxes” and were featured on TV’s “60 Minutes.” 

Susan Brennan

“Bloom Boxes” allow the production of electricity onsite for any variety of business, but they are especially important in those industries where uninterrupted supply of energy is crucial. “We have retail customers such as AT&T, Home Depot and Walmart. Hospitals are important because they need a reliable power source, as do banks, who need backup power for their many transactions. Data centers are also important customers,” says Susan Brennan, Bloom’s chief operations officer. “Energy demand is growing, and there is a trend to have more on-site power generation.” 

Several years ago, Bloom looked at several different states for a fuel-cell manufacturing site. “Eventually, Delaware was chosen as the best location,” says Brennan, who is also in charge of Bloom’s Newark facility. “It had the old Chrysler facility where we located as part of the University of Delaware STAR Campus, and the state had a highly skilled workforce.”

Over the last two or three years, Bloom has moved more and more of its research from California to Delaware, “because we have the trained electrical energy [experts] here as well as trained mechanical technicians,” she says.

In fact, Brennan has become somewhat of an ambassador for the state. “I tell people [in the energy industry that] if you’re looking for a place to locate, consider STAR Campus,” she says. “I tell them to come look at what the state is doing with job training in its high schools and research training in its colleges.”

From Poultry Waste to Electricity

In southern Delaware, a different type of energy production is being tested. There, a Maryland-based firm — CleanBay Renewables — received approval last summer from Sussex County to construct and operate a renewable energy facility alongside U.S. Route 113 south of Georgetown. The facility will have both significant clean energy generation and farming implications. 

When completed, the CleanBay plant annually will recycle 90,000 tons of chicken litter from nearby poultry plants through a process of anaerobic digestion and nutrient-recovery technology. This will significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus that goes into the soil when compared to current poultry-processing technology.

At the same time the litter is being processed, a continuous 5 megawatts of electricity will be produced, enough to power about 3,500 homes or a community of 10,000 residents. The Delaware Electric Cooperative has agreed to purchase the power from CleanBay and distribute it to its customers. CleanBay spokesperson Jackie Priestly says construction at the Georgetown site is supposed to begin this year, “but the [exact] date is to be determined as we’re working to finalize permits.”

Research Launches Clean-Energy Startups

Allie Sethman

Energy innovation also takes place at the academic level, at the University of Delaware Energy Institute. Although its energy research goes across the board in finding clean and efficient energy processes, it has a major role in leading research projects under the new Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute, led by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE). The U.S. Department of Energy made RAPID a member of its national network of Manufacturing USA Institutes.

“We have received major funding from the federal government, especially in catalysis research for energy innovation,” says Allie Sethman, the institute’s deputy director. Sethman says this research has led to four spinoff companies in energy research.

Basudeb Saha

One of them is RiKarbon, founded by Basudeb Saha, which is making renewable carbon-based products to serve the specialty and performance chemicals market. RiKarbon is a finalist at the University of Delaware’s 2019 Hen Hatch competition, whose winner receives $100,000 in cash and in-kind services.

“Our mission and vision are to use the abundant supply of renewable carbon to make high-value and cost-competitive specialty products that are currently operating on petroleum,” Saha says. “Our bio-lubricant products from plant matters and natural oils have multiple high-performance applications in hydropower production, marine equipment, nuclear power production, aircrafts, agriculture equipment, cars, and consumer and industrial machinery.”

Sethman adds that in addition to being a source of energy startups, UD’s Energy Institute also collaborates on research projects with established companies like DowDuPont and ExxonMobil. 

Delaware Leads the way on Sustainability

In 2007, the state of Delaware created the Delaware Sustainable Energy Utility (DESEU), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to foster a better energy future for the First State. At its founding, DESEU was the first organization of its kind in the U.S., according to DESEU’s website. 

Through its Energize Delaware initiative, DESEU offers home energy audits, energy savings programs for businesses and services that include helping non-profits acquire financing for energy upgrades to their buildings. To date, DESEU has granted more than $1 million in loans to help Delaware homeowners purchase and install solar panels. 

In February, DESEU reported it had successfully sold tax-exempt Energy Efficiency Revenue Bonds to fund $19.1 million in energy-saving improvements for the Indian River and Colonial school districts, as well as the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. 

Delmarva Power, a subsidiary of Exelon that delivers power to more than 500,000 electric customers in Delaware and Maryland, also is betting on alternative energy. Through its Green Power Connection program, the utility helps customers get started on generating their own electricity with solar panels.

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