At one time it was thought that fuel cells had such promise, that they were going to be the power source of the future. George W. Bush, when president, even said that fuel cells would one day replace the internal combustion engine. However, the technology never lived up to the hype, and whilst other new energy technologies such as solar and wind grew in popularity, fuel cells were left by the wayside.
Now, it seems as though fuel cells are beginning to establish themselves in niches that show promise for the future, and that they might even be on their way to achieving grid parity, without the need of government subsidies. (Related article: The Cube – New Breakthrough Set to Alter the Energy Landscape Forever)
Fuel cell technology is starting to play a bigger part in the world for several reasons: developments in the technology now allow it to work at 90% efficiency on a combined heat and power setting; low natural gas prices in the US offer an abundant source of cheap fuel; and the fuel cells can provide sources of electricity generation that have a low environmental footprint and need very little room, allowing them to be located close to the end consumer.
Peter Kelly-Detwiler interviewed Chip Bottone, the President and CEO of FuelCell Energy, for Forbes. FuelCell Energy operates 50 fuel cell power plants in nine different countries across the world, including one that will power Al Gore’s new headquarters in London.
Bottone explains that recent global energy developments have helped give fuel cell technology the boost that it had been waiting for. “We have a world with a lot of things going on. Denuclearization is creating electricity supply issues in some countries. There’s a debate about solar. Throughout all that discussion, I think our timing is good to come up with cost-competitive clean infrastructure plays, which is what FuelCell Energy does.”
The Connecticut-based company offers large utility-scaled power plants with capacities of anything from 1MW to 60MW. Currently Bottone says that they are involved in the construction of a 60MW facility in South Korea, part of a portfolio of distributed generation; and a 15MW plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
In 2011, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), stated that the US power grid, including the 5,800 large power plants, and nearly 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission cables, are old and coming to the end of their safe operating lives. Replacing or updating the existing infrastructure will cost an estimated $107 billion. (Related article: Replacing Platinum to Build Cheaper Fuel Cells)
Fuel cells could offer a great alternative. As a source of distributed power generation, fuel cells produce their power close to the end user, negating the need for hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission lines.
As an example Bottone explained that the 15MW Bridgeport facility is made up of five 2.8MW fuel cell power plants located on a 1.5 acre site in the centre of the city, right next to the train tracks, and that it is connected to three existing substations that send the power to the grid.
Mr. Kelly-Detwiler states that as good as fuel cells are doing now, they are still a long, long way off ever being in the same league as wind or solar power; in 2013 new solar and wind installations totalled nearly 70,000MW, whereas fuel cells added just 215MW. Having said that though, 215MW is double the new capacity installed in 2012 so the growth of the industry is exciting.