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May 1, 2005 – Vol.10 No.6

HOME HEAT AND POWER: FUEL CELL OR COMBUSTION ENGINE.

Hydrogen fuel cells for cars and trucks seem a long way off - a decade, maybe two, maybe more, if ever. And it’s not surprising. A fuel cell for vehicles has to be powerful - 50 kilowatts and more - reliable, durable, while being competitive in cost with the venerable internal combustion engine.

Even if fuel cells themselves meet these challenges, a hydrogen infrastructure needs to be built that is as extensive as the gasoline/diesel fuel infrastructure is now. The phrase “trillion dollar” has been used in describing the amount of money needed to build this.

Yet fuel cells to power a home or small business seem more feasible and could be available in a much shorter time frame.

The reasons?

No new infrastructure is needed. Residential micro combined heat and power (cogenerating) fuel cells could operate on natural gas or propane that’s already available in millions of homes world-wide.

The power demands are less. Five kilowatts should be enough to power most homes. With some improvements in the energy efficiency of our homes - such as much better insulation and ventilation, and a switch to highly-efficient LED lighting, it may be possible to reduce a typical home’s energy needs to two or three kilowatts, possibly as little as one. (Especially if the fuel cell is used in the combined-heat and power situation where hot water for heating and domestic needs is produced and stored.

Residential fuel cells have an added bonus. If excess electricity is being generated at any time of day it can be fed back into the power grid and sold to help pay for the system and its operation.

Ballard Power Systems already has a one-kilowatt residential micro combined and power (micro-CHP) fuel cell powerplant it has begun to commercialize to a limited extent in Japan with partner company Ebara Ballard. Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited (CFCL) of Australia, too, has begun a trial testing program for a similar device there.

The Ballard product, known as LIFUEL consists of the micro-CHP and a 200 liter (53 gallon) hot water storage tank. LIFUEL runs on natural gas that’s reformed into hydrogen on demand. The expected efficiency of the unit is up to 93-percent when the heat from fuel cell stack is put to work making hot water.

The commercialization of LIFUEL in Japan has been helped immensely by the government of Japan through the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. That agency will fund - to the tune of $23 million - a program that subsidizes the installation and monitoring of 400 micro-CHP fuel cell systems in the country.

The limited commercialization program kicked off with the installation of two of the systems in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s official residence.

The micro-CHP one-kilowatt fuel cell from CFCL is now being tested at a research institution in Australia. Unlike Ballard’s proton exchange membrane fuel cell technology, CFCL’s is a solid oxide design.

The concept of wide-spread micro-CHP may get off to a start in the U.S. not with fuel cells, but with combustion-engined generators.

Honda and Climate Energy of Massachusetts have teamed-up to begin limited testing of micro-CHP units that run on natural gas to supply one-kilowatt of electricity and the equivalent of 3 kilowatts of thermal energy, in this case hot air. The Climate Energy Micro-CHP system was designed specifically with detached, single family homes in mind and should operate with efficiencies of more than 85 percent. Honda has sold more than 15,000 similar units in Japan.

Like the fuel cell devices, the unit will be able to pump electricity back into the grid. (If movements like that to develop plug-in hybrid electric vehicles take off, the power generated by this and any other micro- CHP unit could be used to charge the vehicle’s battery overnight. See ENERGIES 4/24/05)

 

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