Shelved years ago, a plan that suggested powering Metro-North with fuel cells rather than commercial power is finding renewed attention after a failed transmission cable crippled the rail line last month.
The railroad, which connects thousands of commuters to New York City, restored full service Oct. 7, almost two weeks after a 138,000-volt Con Edison feeder cable knocked out train service in an eight-mile section of the New Haven Line.
Connecticut engineers studied the fuel-cell option in 2006. The plan would have reduced, if not eliminated, Metro-North's dependence on the power grid and replaced it with its own dedicated power source.
Although it was deemed feasible, the economics of the plan weren't there. But times have changed.
The fuel cell option could be both feasible and economically viable today, said Chip Bottone, chief executive of FuelCell Energy in Danbury. He's calling to refresh the earlier study and start meetings with Metro-North.
"Oh, and by the way, you can attract private capital to do this," he said.
Using fuel cells to power the rail line would make Metro-North a microgrid, an electric network that can run separate from the power grid. Such systems have gained attention — especially in Connecticut — since powerful storms in the Northeast have left hundreds of thousands of people without power for days.
Affording the railroad dedicated power, making it a microgrid, would give the vital transit system the same consideration that a row of storefronts in Hartford or a handful of Wesleyan University campus buildings has received as part of the state's first-in-the-nation microgrid program. The move would also line Connecticut up with other states using distributed power generation to improve the reliability of rail infrastructure.
In New Jersey, state officials are designing a transportation microgrid with the federal Department of Energy and engineers at Sandia National Labs for the state's rail system after it was knocked out of service by storm Sandy last year.
The Connecticut feasibility study, released in August 2007 by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, concluded that Metro-North could run on fuel cells, although costs would be high. The "applications are feasible," the report said, but the project would need incentives to be cost-competitive.
The answer to how the rail system became so dependent on a few transmission lines is complicated. The rail line, electrified in 1907, had a dedicated power plant in Greenwich, but the plant was closed decades ago, as Metro-North relied more on commercial power.
A Metro-North spokeswoman declined comment for this story.
The idea to look at fuel cells was floated at a time when the southwest part of the state's electric grid was severely congested and major work was being planned along the rail line. But "very poor economics and significantly higher capital outlays" made the plan difficult, according to the feasibility study.
But the economics of both fuel cells and natural gas have changed since the release of the 2007 study. At current prices, the cost of the energy would come at a premium, but the company's midterm plans would put the energy costs in striking distance of being competitive. Though it's unclear whether a full revival of the plans would be welcomed, that hasn't stopped the industry from making some noise.
"Everything is completely different: returns are better and expectations are higher," Bottone said.
Cos Cob Power Station
Before Metro-North used commercial power, the rail line had its own dedicated power source: the Cos Cob Power Station, a stately mission-style power plant on the Mianus River in Greenwich.
The plant arose because steam-powered rail into New York proved to be a problem in the Park Avenue Tunnel, which eads into Grand Central Terminal. Smoke and steam filled the underground railways, reducing visibility, which caused train wrecks.
The New York legislature prohibited steam engines from entering the city, starting in 1908. So Westinghouse Electric and the New Haven Railroad built the Cos Cob station, the first power plant built exclusively for a railroad.
Until then, New York trains ran on direct current, connected with a shoe on a third rail system. But direct current systems couldn't then provide the power needed for heavy trains to go at high speeds for long distances, which the project required. The answer was an alternating current system, delivered overhead.