Sunday, March 4, 2007

Fuel cell central

This NY Times article is implying that we Connecticutioners may not be doing enough to support fuel cell technology:

"WHILE Connecticut may have the largest concentration of fuel cell-related companies in the nation, sentiment is growing that it could be in danger of losing its edge to other states that now consider fuel cells a lucrative endeavor in alternative energy."

Fuel cells have many advantages for supplying clean, reliable power in remote or environmentally sensitive locations. As a back-up supply, they can come on to full power so fast that computers don't even reboot, which could save millions of dollars in a data center or even lives in a hospital. But they also pose some challenges that make them tough poor contenders for many of the largest potential markets. For example, water, a basic byproduct of the fuel cell reaction, freezes in sub-zero climates and expands within the stack's fragile porous carbon plates. Also, capital costs for stationary fuel cell power is currently around $4500-$5000 per kilowatt, compared with about $500 for traditional power generators. Replacing the 455MW New Haven Harbor station would cost about $2 billion (yes, billion with a "b").

Fuel cell companies rely largely on government grants and venture capital to support continued development (though Proton Energy does have at least one profitable product line). Some feel that with enough support fuel cells could become competitive in more markets and possibly even large-scale power generation or transportation, which would have a huge impact on our state if we maintain our dominance. However, in my opinion we are still a long way from seeing fuel cells dominating any large markets and significantly affecting the way we power our vehicles, generate power or fuel Connecticut's economy.

Should we continue to invest in this technology? Absolutely. Should we expect the world to change overnight? Sorry, but no. There are major technological hurdles in the way and these companies have been working on closing that cost gap for decades. Still, we could see fuel cells popping into more niche markets and it's anyone's guess what role they will play over the next 30 years or so.

For a really good thorough and extensive look at fuel cell technology, download this 5MB pdf from the NETL reference shelf.

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