The California Public Utility Commission voted yesterday to approve projects by Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison to install utility-owned solid oxide and molten-carbonate fuel cells on several University of California and California State University campuses.

PG&E’s $20. 3 million project consists of the installation and operation of three fuel cell generating facilities with a total capacity of 3.0 megawatts at two California State University campuses – CSU East Bay and San Francisco State University. SF State would get both a 1.4 MW molten carbonate fuel cell and a 200-kW solid oxide fuel cell (made by Bloom Energy). CSU East Bay would host a 1.4-MW molten carbonate fuel cell. The molten carbonate fuel cells (made by FuelCell Energy) would be combined-heat-and-power units that would aid the campus’ thermal load, such as heating the Olympic-sized swimming pool at CSU East Bay. Water by-product would be used for landscape irrigation. PG&E says the plants have an estimated useful life of 10 years.

PG&E told the CPUC that it plans to coordinate with the two universities to implement educational outreach programs to maximize the educational benefits of the fuel cell facilities. For example, PG&E would install an educational kiosk at each campus, coordinate signage and educational material, help develop class curriculum, host tours of the facilities, and facilitate educational and community outreach. CSU East Bay says it plans to develop multidisciplinary curriculum and research-based learning opportunities centered on the fuel cell system. SF State claims it will use the fuel cell project  to enhance its graduate and undergraduate business, engineering and environmental studies programs in sustainability.

SCE’s $19.1 million project is similar to PG&E’s. SCE will install, own and operate three fuel cell units (makers unknown) with a combined capacity of up to 3.0 MW on three other California state university campuses. CSU San Bernardino and CSU Long Beach would each get a CHP system of 1 to 1.4 MW. UC Santa Barbara would get one 200-kW solid oxide fuel cell that would demonstrate an electricity-only high-efficiency SOFC where the waste heat is used in the generation process.

These projects didn’t get approved without resistance. The CPUC’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates and The Utility Reform Network protested several points. For example, SCE requested authorization to use $10.8 million in unspent and uncommitted Self Generation Incentive Program funds to pay for 50 percent of their capital costs.

The CPUC said, “Nice try SCE, but no dice.” That’s because it agreed with DRA and TURN that the SGIP monies are earmarked for distributed energy systems installed on the customer’s side of the utility meter and to achieve “market transformation.” The two groups also noted that because utilities, such as SCE, are supposed to be administering the SGIP program, opening the door to them to tap these funds would create a huge conflict of interest.

DRA and TURN also noted that the small scale of these projects would do little, if anything, to advance fuel cell technology. Finally, DRA questioned the educational value of the projects and cited the lack of supportive evidence about how the fuel cells will be used to further class work, and contended that it would be more economical to transport students to visit an installed fuel cell at another site.

As the New York Times reports, the decision also overturns a March ruling by administrative law judge Dorothy J. Duda who found the cost of the projects, which ultimately are financed by the utilities’ customers, to be excessive. “It is unreasonable to spend three times the price paid to renewable generation for the proposed Fuel Cell Projects, which are nonrenewable and fueled by natural gas,” Duda wrote in her decision.