Fuel Cells. What began as a straightforward concept before evolving into a buzzword in the energy industry has now become part of the technology running our daily lives. We’re seeing them pop up everywhere- fuel cells are currently being developed small enough for the portable electronics we use every day (my cell phone, your laptop), and large enough to provide power to telecommunications relay towers, corporate buildings, water treatment plants, electricity grids, as well as transportation (trains, bikes, boats and so on). Fuel cells offer an attractive combination of benefits including low/zero emissions, high quality power production, fuel flexibility, efficiency and low nosie! It is a technology with wide applications and a technology we will continue to see around us.
There are different types of fuel cell technologies (i.e. solid oxide, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid etc), each with their unique advantages and disadvantages. Some are “packaged” systems (comprised of a reformer and inverter along with the fuel cell stack) while some are just the stack itself.
While fuel cells are immensely popular, they are a technology the public is still getting comfortable with, and so questions – and myths—abound. In this article, I attempt to dispel a few of the biggest myths about fuel cells today. For the most part, when I refer to “fuel cells” in these examples, I am referring to stationary fuel cells whose primary purpose is to provide power to a facility and/or utility grid, but will note when I’m speaking of one of the many other types on the market or in development today.
Myth #1: FUEL CELLS ARE IN THE FUTURE
Say “fuel cells” and people think of the Jetsons. Many people do not realize that fuel cells are around you everywhere already. For example, a stationary fuel cell may provide primary or secondary (backup) power to a corporation, a hospital, or a factory producing something you use.
Futuristic? Far from it. The original principle behind fuel cells was first discovered in 1838, while the technology has advanced nicely in the past few decades, the concepts have been around for a long time. And though we will certainly see improved fuel cell technology down the line, today it is making its way in cars, powering buildings, and small devices. Fuel cells provide a steady source of power and can provide power in remote locations – it’s a technology we need today, and fortunately… we have it!
Myth #2: Fuel cells store fuel.
This is a fair enough myth, and is usually believed by those who don’t understand the functions of fuel cell technology. Without going into the specifics, fuel cells don’t store energy (the way a battery would). Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat, and in some cases water. So fuel cells don’t store fuel, they create energy. And as long as fuel is supplied to them the fuel cell will produce electricity.
For example, most stationary fuel cell applications are grid-connected, which means they are connected to the traditional power grid. In those cases, the natural gas used for the fuel cell is fed from the standard utility grid (there are no tanks storing the gas, etc). Most of the larger (100 kilowatts +) fuel cells already have a reformer within the system packaged with the fuel cell stack, and this reformer separates the hydrogen from the rest of the gases. For some biogas applications, off-grid, or smaller systems there could be some sort of gas storage. But the idea of a “fuel cell” as a big block of fuel a la battery, is simply wrong. Fuel cells don’t come with electricity in them, but they have within them what they need to create the electricity you require.
Myth #3: Fuel cells are dangerous:
Some people mistakenly believe that fuel cells are dangerous due to their use of hydrogen. This is absolutely false. While many think of hydrogen and think fire or explosions (H-bomb, the Hindenburg), the reality is that if there is a fire it burns very quick and with far less heat when compared to other flammable gases. Hydrogen is the lightest element in our known universe, and confining it is not easy which actually is safer as it dilutes quickly into a non-flammable concentration. Also, a fuel cell has NO combustion, which is why its emissions are very minimal and it’s considered so clean and “green”. Hydrogen is as safe, if not safer, than many conventional fuels on the market today (think… gasoline!) Hydrogen can be safely produced and transported, but it can also be produced renewably and from local conventional energy sources. This is a great combination of fuel flexibility and energy security. And what’s even better news is that the hydrogen industry has a great safety record. Like any industry, it must be regulated and care must be taken, but fuel cells do not appear to be more dangerous than many other options. Since there are typically no combustion-related emissions from the fuel cell itself, emissions depend on the choice and quality of fuel.
Myth #4: You Can Only Choose One Alternative Energy Source.
So if you use a fuel cell, you shouldn’t – and can’t – use any other alternative energy source, right? You’ve made your choice? — think again.
Some folks mistakenly believe that when looking for alternative energy, it’s either solar, fuel cell, OR something else. The reality is that certain alternative technologies actually work very well together and can have a bigger impact when combined. For example, fuel cells are a base load technology, meaning that as long as they are fed a fuel source (natural gas/biogas/methane) they produce consistent, efficient power at consistent levels, and are well-suited to produce much of the minimum power needed for a facility.
Solar, on the other hand, does not produce consistently, so its power output fluctuates. It generally is producing most of its power during the afternoon, when the sun is in full view and hitting the solar PV modules optimally. This usually coincides with most facilities’ peak electricity usage (air conditioning may be on, lights are on, businesses are in full swing). If you combined these two (fuel cells and solar PV), the solar can produce when a facility is at or near its peak usage, and the reliable fuel cell is still producing the bulk of what the site always needs. That is a great combination.
Myth #5: Fuel cells are expensive.
Can you put a price on saving the planet? Just kidding!
The relative “expense” of a fuel cell depends on where you place value. When using pure hydrogen, the emissions are zero. These sorts of environmental benefits are beginning to be factored into people’s purchasing decisions.
Also, most types of fuel cells produce useable “waste” heat, which can be used to offset a facility’s heating hot water, domestic hot water, or even cooling loads and therefore those costs. Even just using the electricity but not the heat can still make economic sense. Cox Communications in southern California put in 4 fuel cell systems totaling 1.6 megawatts but are not able to use any of the heat. The project still pencils out nicely, especially when considering that Cox is utilizing renewable biogas as the fuel source. Total price will vary according to the system type and size, but if you factor in the environmental benefits plus the available incentives and rebates, fuel cells are a very affordable and very smart solution.
In addition, for organizations that require a steady ongoing stream of electricity they could be the cost-efficient choice. Some organizations can’t depend upon the traditional power grid alone; having a fuel cell on site allows a facility that absolutely needs to be in operation 24/7 (think hospital or hotel/casino) to supplement the electricity they get from the grid or possibly even use the fuel cell as a backup. Fuel cell installations offer relatively low maintenance costs, which is a consideration.