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Fuel Cells: White Knight for Natural Gas?

Fortnightly Magazine - March 15 2000

hydrogen via 'dump' electricity at night and it's there in storage waiting for you the next morning, then that's potentially a cheaper form of hydrogen than [you'd get from] splitting natural gas into hydrogen. So it really is a time-of-use issue."

The application holds big potential for combination electric-gas companies, says Krebs. "Then they've got the technology to make the electricity and they've got the fuel cells as well. And possibly they've got a way to dump and store off-peak coal and nuclear power too. So it could look pretty good for electric utilities." The gas-only company, by comparison, would be limited to profiting from the fuel supply alone on a time-of-use basis, he points out.

Cogeneration applications also increase the value of fuel cells. In fact, capturing and using the heat output could double the efficiency of a fuel cell, according to Ross:

"Fuel cells, depending on the size of the building and the type of technology, can produce more than enough heat energy to be used [1] in the winter to heat the building, [2] throughout the year to heat the hot water used inside ¼ and [3] maybe, if it's an industrial building, in the industrial process." Furthermore, new air conditioning systems based on absorption chilling can be powered with a fuel cell's heat exhaust.

"So now you can use the heat output from a fuel cell year-round," says Ross. "That's very important because otherwise, in the summertime, you'd have to just dump that heat out and your annual efficiency would drop."

While industrial and commercial fuel cell owners could retrofit a fuel cell for cogen pretty easily, residential owners wouldn't be expected to have that level of expertise.

"On the residential level, at least in the U.S., you won't see that level of sophistication until big manufacturers like Carrier and Trane start to manufacture combined systems with air conditioning and the fuel cell in one piece," explains Ross. "We won't see that until the second or third generation of fuel cells."

In Europe and Japan, however, such technology is being developed now, because residential models in those countries lend themselves to connection with a fuel cell. Says Ross, "Plug Power and Ballard plan to offer a complete model for those respective markets from Day 1. It may be five, seven or 10 years before residential fuel cells are configured that way for use here in the United States."

Again, even if fuel cells reduce overall gas throughput in homes, their year-round use would be expected to benefit the natural gas distributor. And, Ross says, it would open up a new market for gas: the all-electric home typically found in warm regions such as South Florida, New Mexico and Southern California.

Too Much Risk? Big Players Don't Think So

Almost anyone doing work in fuel cell development is working with or looking for partners - whether for investment, for technology expertise, or for distribution channels.

"About every fuel cell company I know is either seeking a partner, has a partner, or would like to have one," says Bob Rose,