Photo credit: vincent
Sheets of rain and hail are pouring down, the wind is blowing so hard you expect cats and dogs to sail by at any moment, and the electric grid is stressed to its breaking point. Businesses and families across the South and Midwest know all about this or similar scenarios, our more northerly citizens deal with the snowy version each year. Before you know it a calm summer day can turn into hours, days, or weeks without power. Surely there must be a solution!
Manufacturers and installers of fuel cell systems believe they hold the ticket to carefree power outages: hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells are powerful, energy efficient, scalable, and have zero or very low emissions. For homeowners, a back-up fuel cell could easily and seamlessly power computers, security system, and essential electricity needs through a blackout, brownout, or any interruption to a home’s power flow.
How They Work
Fuel cells are essentially batteries. They do not, however, slowly power down as batteries do. Fuel cells provide constant electrical output regardless of time of day, weather, or other external influences. According to fuelcells.org, a fuel cell consists of two electrodes (anode and cathode), encompassing an electrolyte. Oxygen from the air enters via the cathode while hydrogen fuel passes through the anode. A catalyst in the anode splits the hydrogen atom into a proton and electron. The proton passes through the electrolyte on its way to the cathode while the electrons create a separate current that is used to harness electricity before continuing on to the cathode. In the cathode, a separate catalyst is used to reunite the electrons and protons, adding oxygen to create water.
The only waste from a fuel cell is water and heat, which can be used to provide water or space heat for the home. Systems containing what is called a “fuel reformer” can process hydrogen from any hydrocarbon fuel, from natural gas to methanol to gasoline. Even using a fossil fuel source, a fuel cell has comparatively small emissions because the system utilizes chemistry rather than combustion.
Fuel cells have a variety of applications. They are most famous as integral parts of hybrid automobiles, which nearly every automaker now has in production or development. Yet that is just the beginning. Other uses include buses, scooters, trains, planes, boats, and forklifts. Furthermore, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and even breweries are utilizing fuel cells because anaerobic digesters — which produce methane — can be connected to fuel cells to create electricity. In some cases, fuel cells are being used to create power for cell phone towers so that cell phone service will continue uninterrupted regardless of the electric grid.
Fuel cells really have little barrier to commercialization other than time. According to Robert Bessler of San Diego-based Silverwood Energy, Inc., the main hurdle for residential fuel cells is load requirement. “That means the site must have a 24-hour load that requires a minimum amount of power. Typically water districts, jails, hotels, etc. are the best sites.”
He notes that the smallest fuel cell system readily available now is 300kW; equal to 1 MW of solar power. “It is definitely a specialized product and you need a very specific site and electrical load situation to make them work,” Robert says. Nonetheless, according to Silverwood’s website, these smaller home systems are on the way, including grid-tied systems that could pump that extra power back to the main grid.
Fuel Cell Future?
The future of hydrogen is likely a very prominent one, being quiet, odorless, low maintenance, and continuously producing power and heating water. It seems the only issue would be the fuel to run them. One potential solution actually includes a hybrid fuel cell-solar power system, although it was conceived as a solution to solar energy storage rather than fuel cell fuel.
Silverwood Energy is one of only a few companies authorized to sell and install fuel cell systems. So far most systems are large industrial, commercial, or utility installations, but small scale residential systems are coming soon! The company also specializes in solar energy systems.