Fuel Cells

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Fuel Cells Could Alter the Way Power is Supplied

March 31, 2001 

By Cherie Jacobs, Tampa Tribune, Fla. 

It would be as if George Jetson took control of your home: Your own personal power plant, called a fuel cell, could run your lights, your appliances, your air conditioning. 

It could cut your dependence on power lines; it could cut your power bills. 

Sound appealing? 

That concept is still a long way off, but fuel cells do exist and have been used to power the space shuttle. Shortly, some cars run by fuel cells will be on the road. And in a handful of years, perhaps a fuel cell could power your home. 

"It's the one thing that you can say: It is rocket science," said Namrita Kapur, equity research analyst for the investment bank Adams, Harkness & Hill in Boston. 

Fuel cells are similar to a battery with a fuel tank. As long as there is some form of hydrogen, the cell can create electricity. 

The fuel-cell industry is still in its infancy, but several companies including one in Pasco County are perfecting the technology for researchers. One reason for fuel cells' recent rapid development is because traditional power plants aren't as efficient in their use of fuel. 

"It's just ripe for something better to come along," said Glenn Doell, a vice president for Dais-Analytic in Odessa. 

"Put the power where you need it." 

The fledgling fuel-cell industry has accelerated in the past two years. The market for fuel cells and related products is expected to be $2.4 billion next year, exploding to $7 billion by 2009, according to the Freedonia Group, a research firm. 

Right now, they still cost too much to be widely available each one is made by hand at one of about a dozen companies across the United States. Depending on size, they can cost from $1,500 to $1 million. 

"They're pretty cool," said Chuck Linderman, director of energy supply policy for Edison Electric Institute's Alliance of Energy Suppliers. "Too bad you can't buy one." 

Fuel cells have been around for more than a century and a half but have been refined in recent years. The electrochemical devices sandwich a membrane between two electrodes, and are stacked with other sandwiches to make a cell. Hydrogen travels across the membranes, which contain platinum, and reacts with oxygen to create electricity. 

They are quiet and clean, emitting only heat, water and, with some fuels, carbon dioxide. They have no moving parts. 

They are fueled by hydrogen, which is difficult to store because it takes high amounts of pressure to contain it conveniently. But hydrogen can be extracted from more common fuels, such as natural gas, propane or gasoline. 

Some fuel cells are tiny enough to fit into a cellular phone. Others are so big they can power a large factory. A fuel cell to power an average home would be about the size of a small refrigerator. 

Fuel cells are more reliable than the traditional electricity grid, experts say, and are not as susceptible to lightning strikes or fallen trees. But they are still experimental, and experts do not know their maintenance requirements, for example. 

Less than a dozen companies make fuel cells today, each producing a few hundred a year or more, all by hand. 

Dais-Analytic in Pasco shares the field with business such as Plug Power in Albany, N.Y.; and Ballard Power Systems in Vancouver, Canada. Another firm, Energy Partners, says its first residential fuel cell will be available late next year. 

"People rely on the electric company, and they trust them, for as many times as they say, `Gosh, my power was out, darn that electric company,'" said Jessica Majeski, business development associate for Energy Partners, of West Palm Beach. 

"It's going to be tough to compete with, `Why don't I just stay with the electric company?'" 

Currently, most fuel cells are made for research, universities, the government or utilities although there are exceptions. One South Florida teenager, with the help of his parent's credit card, bought a small one last year from Dais-Analytic for a science fair experiment. 

Major corporations are interested, including auto makers. 

The earliest fuel-cell cars will be released in 2003 or 2004, including models from Toyota, Ford, Nissan and DaimlerChrysler. 

Others doing research include General Electric, Dow Chemical, and Westinghouse. 

For now, costs remain high. A fuel cell for home use could cost more than $25,000, though they are not yet commercially available. While industry leaders believe prices could drop under $15,000 in a year, analysts say the cost needs to move under about $3,000 to be considered affordable for most consumers. 

Even at those prices, a home with a fuel cell would have to stay connected to a power company for peak times, such as hot summer days. A fuel cell large enough to also support such peak use would be too expensive, industry leaders say. 

The industry has sort of a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Until there's a bigger market for them, fuel-cell prices won't drop dramatically. And until the prices fall, there won't be a big market for them. 

"Power generation technologies take a long time to get introduced into the market," said Doug Herman, program manager for distributed generation for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif. "The next couple of years, things could start to happen." 

Changes in the electricity market in the past two years have spurred more investor interest in fuel cells and other "renewable" forms of energy. 

As an example, Merrill Lynch last year created a mutual fund that invests only in alternative energy companies. 

Fuel-cell companies make up 20 percent of the fund, which is closed to new investors. 

Concerns over global climate changes and health risks associated with power plant emissions has spurred some of the interest, said Karen Miller, technical director of Direct Fuel Cell Group, a nonprofit group supporting a specific brand of unit. 

Also, about half the states have begun deregulating their power markets, meaning they allow competition. Consumers are beginning to consider alternatives for electricity beyond their traditional utilities. 

In Florida, the Legislature may consider a proposal to allow competition in the wholesale market, but a decision this year is unlikely. A commission is studying whether to also allow competition in the retail market. 

The need for reliable power has grown, as people become more reliant on computer technology. Fuel cells are ideal for businesses that need power 99.999 percent of the time such as a hospital, or an Internet service provider. 

"I don't think you'll see consumers going to Home Depot and buying a fuel-cell generator for their home, and taking full responsibility for it," Dais-Analytic's Doell said. 

But that creates a new market for traditional utilities, said Joe Cascio, manager of market services for Tampa Electric Co. He said the utility could create a service department to handle maintenance and repairs of residential fuel cells. If people don't want to handle the fuel cells themselves, they could simply call the power company they originally left behind. 

It remains to be seen how quickly the technology will be embraced in the Sunshine State because the usage of fuel cells is generally higher where natural gas is popular, experts say. 

But in Florida, only about 10 percent of the households use natural gas making it an unlikely place for widespread use. 

"The fundamental question is, do people really want to have their own power generation appliance inside their house?" Herman, of Electric Power Research Institute, said. "Some people like the idea, but it's not clear whether that enthusiasm or desire will spread into the mass market. 

"Nobody's really quite ready to cut the wires," Herman said, "yet."

 

Copyright 2010 Tim Stouse
Last modified: December 10, 2010
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