Joint Fuel Cell Review in the Windy City

By Robert L. Mauro, Executive Vice President, National Hydrogen Association
While fiberglass cows were on parade outside the International Hotel in Chicago [Illinois, U.S.A.], fuel cells and fuel processing progress were displayed inside the hotel. Predicable progress and similar behavior among competing fuel cell and processing technologies complemented the bovine display outside. Three themes dominated the meeting – the formation of consortiums to produce and market stationary fuel cells, the heavy emphasis on onboard fuel processing for vehicles, and the large number of presentations on materials research for solid oxide fuel cells. Detailed discussions of cell performance, a presentation from Gore on membranes for PEM fuel cells, and detailed discussions of early commercial and industrial markets were missing. There was also an emphasis on fuel cells for personal communication and for ship power.

The key surprise at the conference was Rita Bajura of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Technology Center (FETC) saying that the DOE goal for fuel cells in bulk power applications was US$400/kW. Mike Binder of the U.S. Corps of Engineers stated that the smallest size units that qualify for the US$1,000/kW rebate program were fuel cells down to three kilowatts in size. It was also interesting to learn that one Siemens Westinghouse 300-kW, 90 Plug Power, and 16 Analytic (3-kW) fuel cells received rebates in FY98 along with 15 ONSI 200-kW fuel cells. Proton Energy is trying to develop a fuel cell that operates in reverse as an electrolyzer.

The most provocative presentation of the meeting was made by Dave Nahmias, chairman of HTAP. He said that the jury is out on whether or not automakers will use hydrogen or a fossil fuel for fuel cell vehicles that will be available beginning in 2004. The argument for fossil fuels is existing infrastructure, while hydrogen provides greater societal benefits (See story on HTAP report to Dan Riecher). After all the presentations on fuel processing, Nahmias made the point that hydrogen provides vehicles with a cleaner, more reliable, and more efficient onboard system than onboard fossil fuel systems. The position was challenged by several proponents of onboard fossil fuel reforming.

More interesting than the presentations was seeing the partnerships that have formed, some over the past year. These include: Plug Power and General Electric, McDermott and Ballard, Energy Partners and Allied Signal, Westinghouse and Siemens, and FuelCell Energy (formerly Energy Research Corporation) and MTU. In addition, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has moved into a venture phase with its actions which include financial support for Northwest Industries and its residential fuel cell efforts and support for a new solid oxide venture with the Gas Research Institute (GRI). The new venture MSRI will produce a low-temperature planar solid oxide fuel cell.

The drive to commercialization is evolving with various players assuming traditional commercialization roles. EPRI and GRI are becoming brokers in starting new ventures and providing early venture capital. DOE is continuing to fund materials research and support demonstrations. Fuel cell manufacturers are becoming strategic partners with appliance, auto, and utility companies to market and provide product support to customers. While cost and performance are issues, the primary factor for fuel cell acceptance is providing a better product than conventional technology. How that product is defined will determine speed to commercialization.

Electricity cost US$3/kWh, the wage of a typical workingman for a week, when it was first delivered from Edison’s Pearl Street Station in 1882. It was thousands of times more expensive than city gas, yet it was successfully commercialized because it delivered a better product. If fuel cells follow the herd and deliver the same product, then they will have to cost less and perform better than conventional generation. If a maverick can define a product superior to grid electricity, then fuel cells at current prices may not be too expensive today and performance and life will improve dramatically with commercial acceptance. The fuel cell was developed as a convenient way of delivering a conventional product. It will become commercial by delivering an unconventional product at prices the market will bear.

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