The world's first fuel cell-gas turbine hybrid power plant is now generating electricity.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham today joined Siemens Westinghouse Power Corporation and Southern California Edison in announcing that the world's first combination of a fuel cell and microturbine has passed a key site acceptance test, and the major endurance phase of its test program is underway.

Linked together in a mini-power plant the size of a small house trailer, the advanced generator is being tested at the National Fuel Cell Research Center on the campus of the University of California-Irvine.

"This new technology has the potential to alter the landscape of tomorrow's power industry," Abraham said. "It offers a preview of the day when more of our electricity will be generated by super-clean, high-efficiency power units sited near the consumer. Distributed generation could play a key role in strengthening the security and reliability of our power supply, and fuel cell-turbine hybrids could help make distributed power a reality."

The hybrid generator is the latest innovation to emerge from the Energy Department's fossil energy fuel cell program. The system combines a Siemens Westinghouse solid oxide fuel cell with an Ingersoll Rand (formerly Northern Research and Engineering Corp.) microturbine.

Solid oxide fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert energy in a fuel into electricity, much like a battery. Microturbines are small, high-speed gas turbines. In the California unit, the two technologies combine to produce approximately 190 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power approximately 200 homes.

The combination is pushing power efficiencies to unprecedented levels. Early test data show electrical efficiencies of approximately 53%, believed to be a world record for the operation of any fuel cell system on natural gas. Improvements in the technology could ultimately raise efficiencies to 60% for smaller systems and 70% or higher for larger systems.

"In the power industry, efficiency gains of even a few percentage points can make a major economic difference over the life of a generating system," said Richard Rosenblum, senior vice president for transmission and distribution at Southern California Edison, the system's owner and operator. "The remarkable aspect of this revolutionary new hybrid technology is that we've combined two advanced technologies to work as a single, super-efficient unit. The microturbine is being driven by the hot pressurized exhaust produced by the fuel cells, which accounts for its high efficiency."

Because it operates on an electrochemical process, rather than combustion, the system emits virtually none of the air pollutants commonly released by conventional power plants. Its emissions of nitrogen oxide, which can contribute to urban smog, are nearly 50 times less than today's average natural gas turbine. The environmental friendliness means that it can be sited almost anywhere, even in the most environmentally sensitive regions such as southern California.

"Siemens Westinghouse has long been committed to bringing clean, efficient power generation options to the mainstream energy market," said Randy Zwirn, president and CEO of Siemens Westinghouse. "Now, after 20 years of researching and developing the fuel cell technology and implementing projects like the Irvine system, we plan to deploy our first fuel cell products in the commercial market by fall 2003."

Before making today's announcement, the Energy Department and its industrial partners waited for the Irvine system to pass the 1000-hour proof-of-concept period during which the system was gradually brought to its full performance level. The next step is to operate the system for an extended period of time to ensure system stability.

The Energy Department's contract, which is managed by its National Energy Technology Laboratory, calls for a total test program of 3000 hours.

Funding partners in the $16 million project include the U.S. Department of Energy, Edison International, the Electric Power Research Institute, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and the California Energy Commission.