Green Technology

Toyota Aims To Work Fuel Cell Magic With Iconic US Firm Kohler


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One of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the US is dipping its toe into the high tech world of zero emission fuel cells for on-site electricity generation. That would be Wisconsin-based Kohler, which recently launched a new independent firm to explore emerging opportunities in the energy field. Among its first projects is equipping a hospital with a fuel cell system developed in partnership with Toyota Motor North America, and apparently there’s plenty more where that came from.

Stationary Fuel Cells For On-Site Power Generation, Without The Diesel Baggage

The US market has proved resistant to mobile fuel cells, aka fuel cell electric vehicles. Stationary fuel cells are another story. They can provide energy users with a zero emission alternative to diesel generators for backup power.

Releasing energy users from the grip of diesel has been a tough row to hoe, partly because they are reluctant to switch out of a proven technology. Data centers, for example, continue to be a key market for commercial-scale diesel backup generators despite the environmental baggage.

Another issue enabling diesel to keep a foothold is the need for redundant backup power systems in the data center field. Battery backup systems are already commonplace, though in most cases they are still paired with diesel systems for redundancy.

The red flag has been raised, though. Last October the Frederick New Post reported that Maryland officials rejected a plan to install a total of 168 3-megawatt diesel generators, aimed at supporting a total of four new data centers. The math reportedly worked out to the equivalent of a new 504-megawatt diesel-fired power plant.

If and when diesel goes down, backup system redundancy could be filled by a combination of battery arrays and fuel cells. Steve Carlini of the Forbes Technology Council has some interesting insights on that, along with other alternatives.

In addition to emergency backup, stationary fuel cells can be used to take advantage of off-peak discounts and engage in other interactions enabled by new smart grid technology.

A New Fuel Cell System For Hospitals

Hospitals are another highly sensitive use case for on-site power generation, and that’s where the collaboration comes in, between the newly launched Kohler Energy’s Power Systems branch and Toyota. The two firms just announced their first major project, a new fuel cell power system for the Kickitat Valley Health hospital in Washington.

CleanTechnica had a chance to speak exclusively with two insiders about the project, Richard John Ferguson of Toyota and Benjamin Crawford of Power Systems, and they had some interesting things to say about the impact of the collaboration.

“Kohler primarily [focuses on] the mission critical field, including health care, wastewater treatment, airports, and data centers,” Crawford explained. “We’re leveraging our experience in the marketplace to meet our customers’ demands.”

That includes the demand for longer periods of duration as well as performance and sustainability. Crawford noted that gas or diesel generators fit the long duration profile, while battery arrays are more suitable for shorter durations of 4-6 hours.

CleanTechnica has also noted that battery durations of 8 hours or so are beginning to emerge. Still, depending on the use case, a fuel cell system offer more flexibility in addition to longer duration. That is the plan for the hospital’s new system.

“The hospital [is] going to use it from an operational standopoint more flexibly than a backup system. It’s a zero emission solution so they can use it as much as they want, provided they have the hydrogen fuel,” Crawford pointed out.

“The system is designed to have more run time capability,” he emphasized. “Primary back-up is one use, peak shaving is another.”

To meet the sustainability angle, the hospital plans to use green hydrogen produced from water electrolysis. Energy to run the electrolysis system will be sourced from Washington State’s copious hydropower resources, according to Crawford.

You Could Totally Convert Your FCEV To A Stationary Fuel Cell

Toyota put its 30-year history in fuel cell development to work on the new Kohler collaboration, with an assist from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

NREL was already looking into the idea of repackaging fuel cell modules from electric vehicles into large-scale generators several years ago when it embarked on a new project with Toyota, aimed at developing a 1-megawatt system from the company’s FCEV modules.

The goal was to simplify the design to the point where the system could function as a drop-in replacement for conventional generators.

The project also included an assessment of system performance when integrated with energy storage as well as wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources.

In August of 2022, NREL provided an update on the Toyota project, noting that the system far surpassed the previous research. It is “significantly larger scale, generating about 15 times more power, and is capable of direct current and alternating current output,” NREL stated.

Apparently all went according to plan. “We’re confident our solution will fit well with the Kohler package,” Richard John Ferguson told CleanTechnica. “We took all the components out of the Mirai and repackaged them.”

In addition to the NREL proof-of-concept project, Ferguson noted that the new fuel cell system has also been installed for smaller-scale use cases, such as concerts and ski resorts.

“We wanted to make sure we understand exactly what customers like Kohler need to be successful,” Ferguson said. That includes providing on-site power generation in quieter format, compared to the notoriously noisy diesel generators.

Ferguson also noted that the system is scalable and designed to meet a wide range of different customers and use cases.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of traction take off from this when people see the benefits,” he said of the hospital project.



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Speaking Of Traction…

The sticky wicket, of course, is getting large scale backup power users to try something new. Toyota does not have a US footprint of its own in the backup power generation field, but the hookup with Kohler fills in that gap.

Crawford reminded CleanTechnica that the hospital project is the first of its kind and scale for Kohler.

“But we have the name,” he added, emphasizing the name recognition and brand reputation of both Kohler and Toyota.

“The name recognition between both of our organizations, being able to come up with a package solution that customers can count on with a brand like Kohler, you’re getting that full support and they can trust it,” he said.

On its part, Kohler is already laying plans to incorporate stationary fuel cells into its business model.

“Launching the KOHLER Fuel Cell System is a significant milestone in Kohler’s commitment to sustainability,” the company said in a press statement.

In that regard it’s worth noting that Kohler Power Systems is not alone. It is part of the newly formed Kohler Energy organization, an independent company that launched from the Kohler parent in November of 2023. The parent company states that it will continue to hold a stake in Kohler Energy and support its growth.

The Kohler Energy portfolio illustrates how legacy engineering firms are keeping a hand in conventional power systems while supporting the growth of new clean technologies.

Alongside Power Systems and its new fuel cell venture, the Kohler Energy roster lists the following branches, some of which deploy fossil energy and some of which do not: Engines, Home Energy, Kohler Uninterruptible Power, the distributed energy firm Clarke Energy, Curtis Instruments, and the microgrid innovator Heila Technologies.

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Image (cropped): New stationary fuel cell system from Kohler in collaboration with Toyota (courtesy of Kohler, via email).


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