Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Neighborhood fuel cells promise clean, quiet, reliable energy -- and security

Mercury News
August 28, 2006
David A. Rohy and Byron D. Sher

What image does the term ``power plant'' conjure up in your mind? If you are like most Americans, probably a large, ugly building with dark smoke billowing out of a tall smokestack. It's definitely the last facility you want built in your neighborhood. However, when your home or business experiences a blackout or brownout, you are incensed.

There is a solution to increase reliability and energy efficiency, as well as do away with the pollution of power-plant electricity generation: fuel cells.

Surprising to most people, there is a power plant that can be located in your neighborhood that creates no pollutants, is quiet and relatively small. Because it is local, it is less likely to be affected by errant cars or weather knocking down power poles causing dangerous and expensive blackouts. The fuel cell is a new type of power plant that accepts fuel and air and converts them into electricity and water vapor without any combustion or combustion waste.

Today, several companies are developing fuel cells for stationary and transportation applications. Transportation fuel cells must respond extremely fast to driver demands for acceleration. In contrast, commercial and residential loads are fairly uniform and can utilize more robust technologies. The commercial and residential fuel cells provide high energy efficiency -- efficiencies often higher than that of large central power plants.

Most large cities depend on electricity produced at large power plants far from the city gates, which is then transmitted to the city via high-voltage transmission lines. In recent years this system has become overloaded. The approval process to build more transmission lines is painstakingly slow (often taking upward of 10 years to plan and build), costly, and to date has a poor track record (many of the proposed lines are never built). But, without more transmission lines, our cities will be power constrained as our need for power grows. Fuel cells, installed locally, present an alternative.

A neighborhood fuel cell could fit into a garage-sized building and, because of the extremely low emissions and low noise, nobody outside the garage would know that a power plant was operating inside. By deploying relatively small, dependable, clean power plants throughout the cities and neighborhoods, we can achieve higher reliability and greater energy security. When used in this distributed manner they will provide greatly enhanced reliability and versatility to the operators of the electricity grid. In addition, grid operators will have less need to build new transmission lines and substations when robust, distributed fuel cells are in place.

Stationary fuel cells can operate 24/7 at a high efficiency and respond quickly to fluctuations in electricity demand. They have the capability of easily switching between a wide variety of fuels including natural gas, hydrogen, ethanol and biodiesel fuel (automotive fuel cells require pure hydrogen as fuel). Regardless of the fuel, the stationary fuel cells provide safe, clean, dependable, quiet and affordable electricity.

Almost all new large power plants are natural-gas-fueled and burn only natural gas. If the natural gas supply is interrupted, the operators of these plants must shut them off, leaving entire cities blacked out. When natural gas prices soar, as they have done in recent years, your electricity bills inflate because these large power plants cannot switch to more economical fuels. On the other hand, a fuel cell could continue to operate during either a supply outage or an economic crisis by consuming other available and less expensive fuels.

Fully qualified fuel cells are commercially available and ready for deployment. The science has been proven and costs are on a steep downward trajectory as companies employ modern manufacturing techniques to evaluate and lower production cost.

Because of the current need to increase fuel efficiency and to reduce air emissions simultaneously, the power industry and its regulators need to expand the adoption of fuel cells as a key part of the solution. Programs such as the Self Generation Improvement Program administered by California's Public Utilities Commission play a vital role in ensuring a cleaner, more reliable and diverse electricity infrastructure in California. is a former state senator who wrote California's renewable-energy portfolio standards law, and he serves on the advisory committee or board of several energy technology companies and advocacy groups. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.

DAVID A. ROHY is a former vice chair of the California Energy Commission, and serves as a consultant to energy technology companies. BYRON D. SHER

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