BRIDGEPORT, CONN. — How can it be a power plant if there’s no smokestack? Ironically, Bridgeport’s huge 14.9-megawatt zero-emission fuel cell park, the largest in North America, is already partly built but was just announced last Friday in a gritty industrial city whose skyline is still dominated by the red-and-white-striped stack of an ancient but still operating coal plant (one of the state’s “filthy five”).

Further contrast was provided by the broken windows in the abandoned factory buildings a block away — Bridgeport’s plunge from an economic powerhouse was swift when jobs fled overseas. The fuel cells (a rendering of how they'll look when done is below) are sitting atop an old brownfield site — it was the home of the shuttered-in-1988 Bryant Electric factory, location of much historic union strife.

fuel cell plant in Bridgeport, Connecticutt

Fuel cells, invented in the 19th century, are finally coming into their own as both utility-scale power plants and as battery alternatives for electric cars. The first cars with fuel cells under the hood will be on the road as early as 2014. The first on the market will probably by the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell SUV, which is pictured below and has an impressive 365 miles of range. Close behind, in 2015, will likely be fuel-cell cars from Honda (the FCX Clarity, pictured below the Hyundai), Toyota and Daimler. They're expected to cost $50,000 to make and retail for about $100,000, but prices should drop from there.

I’ve driven most of the available fuel-cell cars, and they’re a blast on the road — quiet, powerful, and without the range anxiety of every electric vehicle other than the Tesla Model S. The biggest hurdle is the availability of hydrogen filling stations, so the most probably scenario is that American fuel-cell cars will initially be sold only in New York and California. The infrastructure is lagging behind — California wanted to have 68 hydrogen stations in place by 2016, but right now it has only eight, mostly in the Los Angeles area.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell SUV

The fuel cell, which produces electricity through a chemical reaction, is scalable. That means you can use it to power a watch or a big power plant. The amazingly low price for natural gas (about $2 for a gallon equivalent) right now makes hydrogen a growth opportunity.

Right now untaxed hydrogen can be made for about $4 a kilogram, with about the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. But since fuel cells are more than twice as efficient as gasoline engines, the actual equation is even more favorable to hydrogen. The big drawback — the $1 to $2 million cost of hydrogen stations.

For 95 percent of the 10 million tons of hydrogen produced annually in the U.S., the raw material is the aforementioned piped-in natural gas, which through a process called steam methane reformation is split into hydrogen and carbon oxides. So the fuel cell is zero emission, but not the hydrogen separation. It would take a carbon capture system such as that developed by GE and BP Amoco to make the process completely clean.

Honda FCX Clarity

Ideally, the big power plants would be synergistic with the fuel-cell cars. We’d figure out how to contain the carbon produced by big hydrogen production, and filling stations on every corner would make the need for fossil fuels redundant. Hydrogen has a lot of advantages, including that it’s widely available everywhere. Goodbye to OPEC. Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy," has been talking about this for years. And the Japanese are way ahead of us, using fuel cells (subsidized by the federal government) in zero-emission, zero-carbon homes.

In Bridgeport, the new fuel cell farm (there are five separate units) will produce enough electricity to power 15,000 homes. Heat from the cells will be captured in a turbine to produce more power. The complex is being built by Connecticut-based powerhouse Fuel Cell Energy, a leader in utility-scale plants — it also built the huge installation in South Korea that is currently the world’s largest. An even bigger 59-megawatt farm is under construction in Korea, FCE’s Tony Leo told me.

Bridgeport Connecticut fuel cell farm

The fuel cell farm (seen with Bridgeport blight, above) will be owned by Dominion, a big utility that owns 27,500 megawatts of power generation, wind farms in West Virginia and Indiana, and 11,000 miles of natural gas pipelines. The electricity the fuel cells generate will be used locally, by customers of Connecticut Light & Power, under a 15-year power purchase agreement.

What makes this work is a state program called Project 150, championed by the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority, which adds 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour to the price utilities pay for renewably generated electricity. Without that plan, Bridgeport’s fuel cells wouldn’t be financially viable, and that’s what brought out the mayor, the local congressman, environmental commissioner Dan Esty, and Gov. Dannel Malloy (who pointed out that Connecticut has the highest electric rates in the continental U.S.). “It took us a number of years to get here,” Esty said, “but now Bridgeport will be a model of sustainability. The goal is energy that’s not just clean, but cheaper and more reliable at the same time.”

Connecticut is a big fuel cell leader — not just making them but using them. There are major installations at Central Connecticut State College in New Britain, at Carla’s Pasta wholesalers in South Windsor (I visited that one) and at Pepperidge Farm’s giant bakery in Bloomfield. United Technologies pioneered fuel cells in Connecticut, and Proton Onsite in Wallingford makes them, too. The latter has a solar hydrogen station, and also a test fleet of Toyota fuel cell cars. Owner Tom Sullivan wants to put hydrogen stations up and down the East Coast, but has only done the Connecticut one so far. I could go on and on about fuel cells, but I'm sure you'd rather see this video of a test drive in the Honda FCX Clarity:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Fuel-cell dreams: Powering houses and cars with zero-emission energy
Big hydrogen power plants like the one just installed in Bridgeport, Conn., can complement a fleet of fuel-cell cars.