Fuel cell technology is evolving but still costlyBy Brian Sloboda
Most homes, vehicles, and businesses are powered using electricity or a fossil fuel such as natural gas, gasoline, diesel, propane, or fuel oil. Now, a new option is beginning to emerge: fuel cells.
Electric cooperatives have a long history of exploring the potential of fuel cell technology. Through the Arlington, Va.-based Cooperative Research Network (CRN), co-ops have been investigating different types of fuel cells for more than a decade. While the technology is evolving, the cost is still hefty. Studies recently conducted by CRN at seven co-ops sites and military bases around the country found that while fuel cells (using PEM technology) designed for residential use do work, they carry a huge price tag — producing electricity for a whopping 85 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Comparatively, the average price of electricity in the U.S. is 11.5 cents per kWh.
A fuel cell works like a battery that is constantly charged by putting a fuel into its negative terminal. It creates a chemical reaction, most often involving hydrogen forming with oxygen, but another common fuel is natural gas. One of the main byproducts of the chemical reaction is water, making the process generally pollution free. Normally, fuel cells generate only a small amount of electricity and must be combined into larger stacks to produce enough power for homes, cars, and workplaces.
Currently, five main types of fuel cells exist: polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), alkaline, phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, and solid oxide. Each uses a different electrolyte and comes with advantages and disadvantages.
One solid oxide-based fuel cell, called the Bloom Box, received a significant amount of media attention early in 2010. The device burst onto the scene with endorsements by luminaries like as Gen. Colin Powell, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The product was even featured on "60 Minutes" and has been installed at major Internet-based firms such as Google and eBay.
Analysis of the Bloom Box shows that those costs can be lowered — the unit can generate electricity for 8 cents to 10 cents per kWh, but only with hefty federal and state renewable energy subsidies tossed in. And the Bloom Box can't maintain consistent output day-in, day-out for years like a typical baseload power plant. In fact, a 100-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell like the Bloom Box, running on natural gas at a 48 percent efficiency rate, carries a unit price of about $7,000 to $8,000 per kilowatt — about the same as a nuclear power plant.
To be successful over the long term, fuel cell efficiency will need to increase from the 40 percent to 60 percent typically found. And given pressures on federal and state budgets, fuel cells will need to operate economically without relying on government incentives to stay competitive with more traditional generation sources.
Electric cooperatives continue to explore new and innovative options to reduce costs and provide reliable energy choices. If fuel cells come of age, co-ops will be at the forefront of educating members on the technology's advantages and disadvantages.