So will every home, one day, have a fuel cell?

We are happy to be able to host another guest blog from Zara Qadir, Communications Manager from the Sustainable Gas Institute. This week she discusses fuel cells and their impact outside electric vehicles.

Last week, I attended a seminar at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) on the topic of fuel cells for stationary power applications. While fuel cell-powered vehicles have received increased attention in recent years, it’s actually their use in stationary combined heat and power that is currently the largest global commercial market.

One of the keynote speakers was our Director at the Sustainable Gas Institute, Professor Nigel Brandon from Imperial College, who is a pioneer in the area. Nigel provided a comprehensive introduction for those new to the field, as well as an update on the current international market.
So what exactly is a fuel cell and why are they important? A fuel cell is a device that can convert chemical energy directly into electricity and heat energy with great efficiency. While a single cell can only produce a small amount of electrical current, for larger-scale applications, they can be combined into a stack and subsequently a complete fuel system.

Fuel cells are named after the electrolyte – whether it be an oxide, hydrogen or a polymer. They offer a major promise to help to decarbonise the hardest part of the power sector – the domestic and commercial heating. With no combustion-phase, fuel cells are free from emissions of nitrogen oxides normally associated with burning fossil fuels. Each type of fuel cell has advantages and drawbacks. Where cells are fuelled by hydrogen, the only waste products are energy and water, so they have the potential to provide an efficient and environmentally friendly power source.

Wider use of fuel cells promises to change the traditional centralised distribution to a more home-energy model by generating electricity closer to where it’s consumed. Using fuel cell boilers for the home (micro-CHP) can provide up to 90% efficiency compared to 45% for centralised traditional models.

Nigel Brandon Fuel CellsNigel provided some background from a recent UK trial [PDF] which showed that combined fuel cells and heat pumps could provide substantial system benefits in terms of reducing peak electricity demands on the central electricity system. This was based on the impact on electricity demand for 46 UK dwellings during the coldest week of the year.

So what is the current international status of fuel cell technology in the stationary market? Over 140,000 fuel cell micro combined heat and power units (micro-CHP) are in Japan. Unfortunately, fuel cell deployment in Europe is currently still behind Asian and North American markets. In Korea, Posco, the country’s biggest steel company, recently installed the world’s largest fuel cell power plant at 150 MW. As the costs comes down, fuel cells are also being used to power data centres in trend-setting organisations such as Google and eBay.

Alastair Rennie representing the UK Hydrogen Fuel Cell Association was next up to the podium. He introduced the H21 project, which is testing the theory that the UK could convert to running hydrogen generated from traditional natural gas and electricity sources using much of the existing infrastructure. The test ground is a large percentage (1%) of the UK population based in Leeds City Centre. The H21 first outputs are due in May 2016.

The last keynote was Fiona Riddoch, former Managing Director from COGEN Europe who gave an update on the development of fuel cell technology in the domestic heating sector in Europe. Ene.field project is in nine member states and has installed and is monitoring 900 mCHP units. So far, Germany is the sturdiest market due to their developed infrastructure of manufacturers and installers. Fiona shared some preliminary results from work (e.g. technical progress, customer attitudes, assess market potential, policy recommendations) they plan on publishing in 2017. Imperial college is a partner, providing modelling expertise.

The next speaker, Jeff House, was from Baxi, a recognised household name and manufacturer of boilers. The company sees the enormous opportunity that the technology has in empowering consumers, while decarbonising the heat sector, balancing renewables and contributing to energy security. One UK trial at a Premier Inn in Glastonbury which as you can imagine has a significant water demand (around 3,000 litres per day). Now, mCHPs supply around 20% of their annual demand. He speculated that commercial demand will increase as new building regulations come in, and alternative models are established for funding units.

In the UK, if you ask the average person what a fuel cells is, you would still be hard pressed to get any kind of answer. Whereas, in Japan, around 90% would have some idea, and 60% of people would be able to tell you where to buy one. This contrast was made by Mark Selby, Chief Technology Officer Ceres Power, an Imperial College London spin-out company. Cerres is commercialising fuel cell technology using stainless steel and ceramics, rather than precious metals, so fuel cells are cheaper to produce and more robust. Cerres partners with manufacturers such as Honda. Selby did further highlight that Japan’s market has been maturing for 20 years. It is predicted that by 2020 the fuel cell market is expected to be approximately $40 billion.

So what challenges does the market face? A greater volume is needed to reduce system capital costs. Lack of consumer awareness may also be holding back the technology from being adopted. While researching your options as a consumer you’ll probably want to know how long it will take for a fuel cell boiler to pay off. This essential question was actually answered by our final speaker from Viessmann, another leading manufacturer of boilers. Their trials indicate that total fuel cell costs for a semi-detached house went down by 65%.

After a morning of talks, what were the main take-home messages. In the future, as the energy system becomes more decentralised, consumers may become producers. The investment cost for fuel cell technology is coming down thanks to markets like Japan and Germany. While the UK has a strong scientific base in hydrogen and fuel cell research, the market still seems to be limited as electricity and gas prices are still relatively low. So although it may not be so straightforward to buy a unit in the UK right now, the technology is ready and has the capacity to supply both heat and electricity at greater efficiency, while being less harmful to the environment (as in a 50% reduction in CO2).

If you want to find out more about IMechE seminars, check out their website or you can read more on hydrogen fuel cells on the H2FC SUPERGEN website.

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