The leading supplier of Southern California’s electricity has chosen UCSB to serve as a guinea pig for a new sustainable energy technology.

Southern California Edison selected the campus out of hundreds of candidate sites to host a fuel cell, an electrochemical conversion device that produces an on-site energy resource. As the campus is one of three places specially selected to test the device, the utility company will cover the $1 million cost of installing it in the Student Resource Building. When it is completed in roughly 15 months, campus officials expect the new fuel cell will drastically bolster the SRB’s renewable energy potential.

According to David McHale, associate director of UCSB Physical Facilities Utilities and Energy, the new cell will almost double the building’s rate of energy efficiency.

“A fuel cell takes natural gas and converts it to electricity,” McHale said. “The type of system we’re looking at takes the heat off that cycle and converts it to energy. We’re looking at a 60-65 percent range of efficiency, which would almost double our rate of efficiency.”

Jonathan Rumble, SCE project manager, said UCSB’s longstanding business relationship with Edison made it a leading candidate for one of the fuel cells.

“The reason we chose Santa Barbara is because SCE and UCSB have a strong working relationship,” Rumble said. “We recognize that UCSB offers a strong platform for environmental leadership. It’s a good place to demonstrate an exciting new technology that is starting to approach commercial viability.”

Nonetheless, McHale said, the competitive selection process for fuel cell hosts should be noted. The lucky institutions getting a fuel cell, he said, are trailblazing test subjects for new energy efficiency technology.

“PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric Company], Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric were each asked to come up with potential sites or candidates for fuel cells in their respective territories,” McHale said. “So we were one of three out of over 100 to be chosen for SCE. Then what happens is the fuel cell is actually owned and paid for by SCE, so it’s a pilot process with a research function and we’re the pioneers.”

McHale said once a partnership with SCE had been established on this project, choosing an appropriate location on campus for the fuel cell was a detailed process.

“When choosing a site, we first have to look at the proximity of necessary utilities, like natural gas and electricity,” McHale said. “Second is available space, and the third thing is we wanted somewhere on campus where there would be a visual impact. The SRB is in the major corridor between campus and I.V., so there’s a lot of foot traffic to promote the project.”

The addition of this fuel cell, McHale said, boosts UCSB’s already sterling reputation as a major player in sustainable construction and design.

“One of [Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs] Michael Young’s priorities is trying to have all Student Affairs buildings at net zero or as close to that as possible,” McHale said. “For instance, the [Multi-Activity Center] has solar panels, which is an effort to get that building to net zero. With the fuel cell, we’re looking at possibly offsetting the electricity usage on the building, meaning we might be able to produce as much energy as the building uses.”

Rumble said that in addition to UCSB, Edison plans to locate the two other fuel cell projects at Cal State Long Beach and CSU San Bernardino.

“We have filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission and the total projected cost for the project for all three sites is $21.6 million,” Rumble said.