Monday, June 23, 2008

Many eggs, one basket


This op ed piece in the Norwich Bulletin calls on CT to fund only fuel cell-related clean energy projects. The goal, they say, is to support a long-term effort to develop cheaper alternatives to ever-growing fossil fuel costs. They really need to do some research and a little math before expressing their views.

The stated goal is to reduce "demand for electricity from fossil fuel-burning generators — and lower electric costs eventually." The vast majority of fuel cells run on fossil fuels. Others run on hydrogen that has been produced primarily using fossil fuels and nuke power (same grid that you and I use).

Fuel cells are relatively expensive -- even more expensive than the wind project example they use to bolster their point. Fuel cells typically come in at $4500/kw installed cost. The wind project is $200,000/50kW = $4000/kw. With zero fuel costs for the life of the turbine. While there have been many projections that fuel cell costs will come down, this number has not changed in many years.

The editorial derides the wind and solar installations for only providing power to a small facility. Unfortunately for their case, fuel cell installations are not much larger -- on the order of single-digit megawatts, compared to hundreds of megawatts for a traditional fossil fuel plant. Fortunately for us, small-scale distributed generation, like these projects, can go a long way towards reducing costs by stabilizing the regional grid and reducing congestion charges.

"There simply isn’t enough wind in Connecticut to produce enough electricity to make a dent in the state’s electric needs." Who says we need a single solution to supply the state's entire energy needs? That really seems impractical. In the end, we will have a mix of technologies like we do now (nuclear, oil, coal, hydroelectric, etc...).

There is no silver bullet. We should absolutely continue to support fuel cell development, but for large-scale power generation it is way too early to put all our eggs in one basket -- particularly a basket that has been under development for over 100 years and has yet to produce a single commercially viable product.

1 comment:

Alex K said...

This article is a classic "Straw Man." Single technology solutions are obviously not the answer. Apologists for nuclear and fossil fuel energy point to the small offset to the total energy picture that individual clean technologies offer to justify a complete dismissal of them. Following this line of thought, nuclear power only makes up 19% of our electricity in the US so it should be abandoned since it can't replace all our needs.

The conclusion of the post was almost right. We do need a collection of energy sources so that we don't rely on any one. Solar thermal concentrators, solar updraft towers, PV, wind, wave energy, biomass, etc. all contribute to our energy supply while mitigating the obvious negatives of coal, nukes, and natural gas.

Do advocates of nuclear and coal expansion think that these are really great technologies or do they think these are our only options? Either way, looking in the rearview mirror has never been an effective way to move the car forward.