Fuel cells heading for take-off?


When will stationary fuel cells begin to fulfil the enormous potential that this ‘ultra-clean’ technology promises? Progress to date has been no more than steady – the last (November 2015) annual Fuel Cell Industry Review suggested that 50,000 stationary fuel cells, with a total power generating capacity of just over 200 MW, were installed world-wide during 2015 – up from 40,000 units for the previous year. Adoption of the technology was still being held back by costs and its relative novelty; I’ll be interested to see if that increase has been maintained this year.

We are certainly seeing some interesting new and larger-scale installations around the world in recent weeks. In the US, FuelCell Energy is building what it calls a utility-scale (3.7 MW) fuel cell power plant at a ‘land-constrained’ industrial site in Danbury, Connecticut. The company says that fuel cells can generate quantities of clean power from much smaller sites than other state-supported renewable technologies, and at much higher availability rates.

Meanwhile, Europe is catching up, with its first megawatt-scale fuel cell CHP plant, also from FuelCell Energy, installed at a plastic and ceramic manufacturing site in Germany. Again, the company and partner E.ON are talking of targeting new markets with multi-megawatt units.

And there is a good deal of innovation around the world. A US branch of furniture retailer IKEA is having a 250 kW fuel cell system – fuelled with biogas – installed to meet, along with the store’s 900 kW solar PV array, the majority of its energy needs. In Japan, a 250 kW hybrid fuel cell and microturbine CHP unit is being tested by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems for use at manufacturing sites in the country. Japan is already home to the world’s largest domestic-scale micro-CHP industry – with 40,000 units, each less than 1 kW in capacity, installed during 2015. Last, Ceres Power Holdings is working with engine company Cummins to develop a new 5 kW solid oxide fuel cell, initially for use in the fast-growing US data centers market.

The technology is there; the potential enormous – if developers could get costs down, fuel cells could really take off.

Morocco’s Ministry of Energy is working with German partners to target 600 of the country’s 150,000 mosques, initially, for a ‘green makeover’ including new solar photovoltaic (PV) and thermal energy systems by the end of this year. The government of India has asked spiritual leaders to install solar power technology at Hindu ashrams across the country. Could religious buildings in the developing world be an important new market for on-site renewables?



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