Michigan: A leader in alternative energy, part two

• Many obstacles, costs remain for cars powered by fuel cells

Innovative energy companies cooperate around the globe. In a partnership with Vaillant, a European company, Plug Power has installed 31 fuel-celled heating appliances in multi-family housing, small business and government buildings in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. The units are linked via a computer-based control system to collect data on individual fuel cell performance and the effectiveness of the control system. Each system will produce 11 kW of heat for the buildings and 4.6 kW of electrical energy to be sent to the grid.

In the past year, 15 Plug Power 5kW systems were installed in military and other federal facilities as part of a residential fuel cell demonstration program run by the Department of Defense. The systems are grid-connected, strip hydrogen from natural gas or liquified petroleum gas, and convert it into heat and electricity. Using fossil fuels as a hydrogen source is seen by its advocates as a convenient transitional fuel that eventually should be replaced by hydrogen derived from clean sources like the electrolysis of water by wind or solar.

Fuel cells are also being installed in the U.S. in more traditional marketplace applications. On Long Island, N.Y., the grid is near capacity and electrical prices are high, so fuel cell generators are being installed. This year, five Home Depot stores have disconnected from the grid and rely exclusively on power from fuel cells.

In California, a McDonald’s restaurant faced with unreliable power and high energy costs has also disconnected from the grid and is using fuel cells for its heating, chilling and electrical needs.

A fuel cell of 7 kW is sufficient to meet the energy needs of an average home. At a price of $65,000 plus the cost of natural gas, the units are far too expensive to replace a home furnace. The cost must drop to the $3,000 to $5,000 range for the units to be economically competitive.

Fuel cells are most likely to make a highly visible impact in small appliances. A power pack sufficient to power a cell phone is being introduced by Medis and is priced at $29.99. A fuel cartridge will cost an additional $1.50 and power the cell phone for 12 hours. It is hoped that the cartridges can be refilled and recycled.

As they gain acceptance, fuel cells should help dissipate public anxiety regarding the safety of hydrogen as a fuel.

Auto transportation is seen as one of the last applications in which fuel cells will gain broad market acceptance. Fuel cell cars face technical hurdles and are costly. In spite of the obstacles, firms continue to design and test technologies related to the transportation sector.

Plug Power, in a cooperative venture with Honda, has installed a home energy system in Torrance, Calif., that strips hydrogen from natural gas, stores it and delivers hydrogen to a Honda FCX fuel cell-powered vehicle. Excess electricity from the process is sent to the electric grid.

On-site home generation of hydrogen for transportation use is a temporary solution to refueling a hydrogen-powered vehicle since it limits travel distance to the round trip provided by the stored hydrogen. Expanding a system of on-site generators could help solve the problem of creating a hydrogen infrastructure to support a hydrogen-based transportation system.

The hydrogen-based transportation system, still in the early stages of development, will do little to relieve existing air polution problems caused by transportation. The pursuit of fuel cells should not serve to undermine available pollution solutions. Improved vehicle fleet mileage and hybrid vehicles are proven means to dramatically curtail pollution now.

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