SOC/POWER: Fuel Cells

Date: Fri May 11 2001 - 07:16:27 MDT

Here's a private exchange I had this morning with a friend of considerably
"pinker" political sentiments than me:

In a message dated 5/10/01 9:07:09 PM Central Daylight Time, ______ writes:

> I just wonder if this is going to go the way that solar power did when
> Reagan came into office. Almost complete abandonment of R&D/D&E, and
> certainly no consumer tax breaks/subsidies for it, thereby causing the
> collapse of what consumer demand there was for rooftop units. That Siemens
> unit sounds fantastic, but even if successful, do you think that large
> commercial applications will continue to be funded and pushed heavily in
the "
> pump it, burn it" DOE of Cheney and Bush? Your thoughts?

Fuel cell tech is much more likely to see significant implementation and
further development over the next few years than solar photovoltaic did in
the 1980s and 90s for a few very good reasons:

1. The technology is much closer to being practicable on scales that are
meaningful for real-world applications at many scales than photovoltaic was
in 1980, 1990 or even 2000.

2. Fuel cells scale to many different kinds of applications, from powering
wristwatches and notebook computers, to households and cars. Solar
photovoltaic is still nowhere near such a level of development. Further, the
defense R&D establishment has a MAJOR application crying out for fuel cells,
which is the powering of man-portable systems (i.e. the Starship Troopers
initiatives that are getting a LOT of attention these days).

3. Despite the fact that hydrocarbon fuels are still plentiful, we're seeing
some artificially created "energy crises" in places like California and
Europe. These crises could be addressed quickly with technologies that are
currently well understood and are relatively friendly to the environment, but
the sausage grinder of legislation and regulation in these places is likely
to continue to make a hash of energy policy for quite some time to come.
Small-scale fuel cell generators offer individuals, small groups and
enterprises a way to sidestep the still heavily-regulated power grid and
solve an immediate problem: keeping the lights on. This real current demand
is IMMENSE and very well may drive development of fuel cells over the finish
line to real products very quickly.

> And why does fuel cell technology have to be distributed to each
> Wouldn't it make more sense to have large, super-efficient plants on the
> existing grid? I don't really think I want to have/deal with hydrogen
> around my house--on the other hand, we could take out a lot of heavily
> polluting plants with this technology, and move toward improving the
> efficiency of the grid.

First, your question is based on the incorrect assumption that a fuel cell
SYSTEM requires pure hydrogen as a fuel. Many of the systems about to hit
the market contain fuel reformer elements that allow them to run on natural
gas. Thus, the near-term goal is to be able to buy a reasonably-priced
appliance to which you can connect existing gas lines to your home or
business. While these systems do produce carbon dioxide as a by-product, the
net effluent of this waste gas is no more than what a central generating
plant would exhaust to produce an equivalent amount of power and may well be
less, given the higher efficiency of a catalytic fuel reformer over a
combustion process, even the relatively clean combustion in a gas turbine.
Furthermore and very important, the exhaust from a natural gas-powered fuel
cell system doesn't contain the many trace gasses that arise as combustion
by-products, especially NOx. Beyond this, of course, the other by-product of
a fuel cell, chemically pure H2O, would be an ecological boon to
water-strapped areas.

Beyond this, I don't disagree that we should and likely will see
implementation of fuel cell technology on large scales as well as small
scales. I'm an advocate of small-scale implementation for social and
political reasons as much as technological ones. Competition from
small-scale applications can only make the main power-grid system operators
and regulators wake up and take notice. For 125 years they've held a
pampered, protected place in our industrial ecology and it's time they felt a
little real pressure from another way of doing things.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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