Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hydrogen project touted as future energy, business generator

Times Record
August 30, 2006

WISCASSET — With the unveiling of the first hydrogen energy project of its kind in America on Monday, the Chewonki Foundation hoped it was taking steps toward keeping Maine homes out of Middle Eastern oil conflicts and Maine companies at the forefront of the burgeoning technology.

Chewonki's Renewable Hydrogen Project — which brought together a who's who of the state's engineering, technology, safety and financial institutions — was billed as America's first publicly accessible system that integrates renewable high-pressure hydrogen production with hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The Maine Technology Institute and Hydrogen Energy Center were among the many organizations arm-in-arm with Chewonki on the effort.

The project allows the public to get a closer look at the sort of system that, after some continued development and tinkering, could eventually be the environmentally friendly household answer to the skyrocketing costs of fossil fuels.

Though the days of the home hydrogen generator may be a bit farther down the road, Maine companies that have been working on the Chewonki project have already found themselves ahead of the competition as the country seeks ways to get around rising fuel costs.

"Hydrogen represents a huge growth industry, and the creation of this partnership will put Maine on the leading edge as this industry expands," said Gov. John Baldacci. The governor referenced projections by financial consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers, saying the global demand for all fuel cell products will reach $46 billion per year by 2011 and will grow to more than $2.5 trillion per year by 2021.

"It garnered us a whole new market," said Calen Colby of OEST Associates Inc., of South Portland. "We broke into the hydrogen market and got new jobs out of it. It's been really good for business."

Colby, who spoke at the national Fuel Cell 2006 conference in Durham, N.C., in early June, said his company has already been approached by box stores in Florida that view hydrogen technology as a way to stay self-sufficient and open-for-business during the Southeast's annual hurricane season.

"Our phone rings when gas (prices) go this high," he said. "People are starting to look around. This is fueled by economics. This is not just a feel-good operation."

The Chewonki project is a smaller scale, functional model of a hydrogen system that would be used in a Florida box store, set up to supply four days' worth of backup energy to the foundation's animal center.

According to the Chewonki Foundation's Brendan Kober, the organization's remote Wiscasset location leaves it vulnerable to power outages during the winter, and it takes tremendous volunteer work to keep the group's many animals warm and safe when those outages occur.

Using solar energy gathered by panels on site and water power from the Androscoggin River, the Chewonki system splits the "H2" and the "O" from H2O (water) and compresses it to about 2,600 pounds-per-square-inch for storage in canisters that serve as heavy batteries. The system kicks in and begins supplying energy to the animal center automatically when the electricity goes out.

On a larger scale, firms such as Auburn's Maine Oxy hope to begin producing hydrogen for wholesale distribution to industrial customers like Fairchild Semiconductor, which has until recently only been able to acquire hydrogen generated using fossil fuels and, indirectly, from out-of-state sources.

That reliance on sources from beyond Maine's borders is another thing the Chewonki project hopes to curb.

"Maine's got all the pieces of the puzzle necessary to create a complete hydrogen system," said engineering manager Michael Metcalfe of Kennebunkport-based Purist Energy LLC.

"This system sends no money overseas, places no reliance on foreign energy sources and needs no diplomatic ambassadors or military entanglements to support it," said Chewonki President Don Hudson.

To that end, Baldacci was on hand to sign the Hydrogen Energy Fuel Cell Partnership, which Erika Morgan of the Maine Energy Investment Corp. hoped would lead to a "road map" toward creating affordable hydrogen systems for consumers.

That prospect, though, was a bit of a drive down the road envisioned by the map makers.

"A one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate for quite some time," admitted Mark Cummings of Bath-based Fire Risk Management. "We need more 'Chewonkis' first. We need to trip over a few more codes and regulations to see how (hydrogen) can be applied to other operations."

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