Fuel cells may not be commonplace, but they are more commercially available than ever before. Their burgeoning success in providing power can be found in standby, prime and distributed generation mobile and vehicle applications. With one foot in continued research and development (R&D) and the other in commercial markets, fuel cells are on track to becoming a true alternative source for generating electric power.

The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association’s online catalog (www.fchea.org) lists 89 commercial fuel cell unit and/or parts suppliers (as of July 22, 2011). What’s driving this market? The June 2011 “State of the States: Fuel Cells in America” report, issued by Fuel Cells 2000 (www.fuelcells.org), provides some answers. The report says, “In just over a year, states have greatly expanded the playing field for the fuel cell industry, in some cases by adopting fuel cell friendly policies, but in most cases providing a marketplace for fuel cells and fuel cell powered systems.” Fuel Cells 2000, Based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit organization that annually reports on fuel cell commercialization progress in the United States.

U.S. federal assistance in the development and deployment of fuel cell technology plays an important part in bringing this clean energy to market. Sarah Dillich of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fuel Cell Technologies Program reports that, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding, a total deployment of up to 1,000 fuel cells is planned. To date, more than 600 fuel cells for backup power at cell towers and for material handling (lift trucks) have been deployed. The ARRA and other federal funding is work-ing to accelerate the market by helping create a robust U.S. fuel cell manufacturing industry and accompanying jobs in installation, maintenance and support services.

The DOE technology program illustrates the overlap between market deployment and continued R&D. Under the ARRA funding, 12 grants were awarded to develop and deploy a variety of fuel cell technologies, including polymer electrolyte membrane, solid oxide and direct-methanol fuel cells in auxiliary power, backup power, combined heat and power (CHP), lift truck and portable applications. Manufacturers or other project partners share costs ($54 million or more than 56 percent of total project cost) for a total funding of about $96 million.

One contractor with a toe in the water
PDE Total Energy Systems/Pacific Data Electric Inc., headquartered in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., markets itself as a specialized electrical con-tractor that designs its own electrical systems. The company favors renewable-energy sources. Fuels cells have always intrigued Dan Henrich, president of PDE Total Energy Solutions.

“I’ve known about fuel cells, read and researched them for a number of years,” he said. “At a trade show, I visited a fuel cell manufacturer’s booth. The manufacturer liked how we took an integrated power approach for our customers, and I was convinced this technology was ready for prime time. I decided to work with them on a project.”

The manufacturer was ClearEdge Power, Hillsboro, Ore. The project was a residential effort where PDE engineered a system incorporating a ClearEdge5 natural-gas-fueled fuel cell unit into a CHP application (the heat recovery was used to meet hot water needs, including the heating of the swimming pool).

“We are integrators and often design/build DC power systems, working in critical power and UPS [uninterruptible power supply] applications,” Henrich said. “As the renewable-energy market developed, everyone was looking at solar. We looked at energy storage that could incorporate any mix of alternative energies, be it wind, solar and, now, fuel cell into one integrated system.”

Henrich explained that with this residential project, his company incorporated solar, fuel cell, energy storage and a clean standby generator (propane unit replacing diesel) to provide backup and stored green power.

Dan Cohee, PDE vice president, explained how the company went even further. “The system also offers an islanding grid function. The energy stored by a 10-kilowatt solar array can provide excess power back to the load or grid when needed during the day. In the event of a power outage, it also provides power to the home through energy storage. The standby power generator kicks in only when the energy storage is depleted. Once the utility returns power, the energy recharges the power storage unit—in essence using green en-ergy to provide power. Once the utility establishes tariff rates, the owner can sell excess power back to the utility.”

The energy-storage bank of batteries can provide low-cost peak or free green power and can be used for charging electric vehicles during peak power times.

“With this project, we wanted to demonstrate these systems work well and are reliable. We also wanted to demonstrate that we could satisfy building and safety department requirements to receive project permit and ultimately city and utility final project ac-ceptance,” Henrich said. “We are measuring the performance of our system with the homeowner and have reduced energy costs by over 94 percent.”

An industry diving in
If there is any doubt that fuels cells have moved beyond the realm of basic research, just look at recent headlines.

California-based Bloom Energy has signed an agreement with the state of Delaware to build an East Coast manufacturing facility for its solid oxide fuel cells. This fall, the company expects to break ground on its 200,000-square-foot facility, which may need up to 900 workers. The factory could be operational by mid-2012. Bloom’s energy server units provide 100 kilowatts of power.

According to Fuel Cells 2000, in 2010, fuel cell companies saw increased sales in primary power or CHP systems in markets such as grocery and other retail, corporate sites and production facilities, local governments, municipalities, and schools and universities. Mar-quee names, such as Whole Foods, Coca-Cola and Walmart, continue to increase their fuel cell use. Fuel cells are also finding a market backing up cell and radio towers and utility substations, and they have also made the United States the world leader in fuel cell-powered forklifts. Gains were also made in fuel cell intellectual property, incentives and policies, fuel cell-powered buses and light-duty vehicles, and an increasing manufacturing and sales work force.

“This technology is becoming steadily cheaper due to R&D progress,” said Dimitrios Papageorgopoulos, fuel cells team leader for the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Program. “Two major challenges are cost and durability, and both are being addressed by R&D efforts, including reducing the dollar per kilowatt of power produced through the use of less expen-sive stack and system components such as catalysts and fuel processing units.”

Papageorgopoulos characterized the fuel cell industry as in its early market phase.

“Fuel cells are really taking off in certain markets. Obviously, R&D continues to broaden [fuel cells’] market application and is help-ing their competitiveness take hold to penetrate larger sectors,” he said.

 

Getting comfortable with new technology
“Our biggest concern in our initial foray with fuel cells was the unknown,” Henrich said. “We hadn’t worked with this technology before, and it was important to maintain our company’s reputation for quality work. We traveled up to the manufacturer’s headquarters, walked their assembly line, had candid conversations on their product-development challenges and how they were met. We needed to know this company and develop a comfort level. We’re now looking at designing systems integrating fuel cells with renewable energy and energy storage into other larger scale projects such as hospitals and campuses.”

Cohee added that, while the economics of fuel cells are in flux due to their early market entry and rebates and incentives availability, he sees this alternative power source as having distinct advantages.

“You may not have enough roof space for the power you’re seeking with a solar array. Shading may also be a problem. Fuel cells can be a great supplement. CHP applications with fuel cells are another advantage. Remember, a fuel cell is a base load and may fit best for a building running 24/7. When considering fuel cells for a project, it comes down to the application: where can we install it and what is the best blend with other renewable technologies and stored energy? And as always, what is the return on investment for the customer? We’re encouraged to work with this technology again.”


GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavocomm@comcast.net.