Your Next Opportunity: Installing, Maintaining Fuel Cells

January 17, 2002
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Are you a contractor looking for a new business to add to your array of offerings? How about helping customers become more energy efficient while removing their dependence on the national electric grid.

This year, fuel cells could be that promising new growth area.

H Power Corp., Clifton, NJ, builds proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which operate by way of an electrochemical reaction, much like your vehicle’s battery, using hydrogen as the fuel and air as the oxidant. The reaction results in electricity. The byproducts are heat and water.

“PEM is probably the fuel cell technology that has had the most development in recent years,” stated Paul McNeill, vice president of business development for H Power. “The fact that it operates at relatively low temperatures makes it easier to use.

“For residential and light commercial installations, around 4 or 5 kilowatts, it allows you to get systems to start up relatively quickly.”

Operating temperatures for PEM fuel cells are roughly from the freezing point almost to the boiling point of water, so start up requires little or no imposition of auxiliary systems.

Some PEM fuel cells use a reformer, explained McNeill, which is basically a chemical reactor that converts natural gas or propane to hydrogen for fuel cell operation.

McNeill said that most major fuel cell manufacturers, including his company, intend to introduce commercially available units for residential and light commercial use during 2002.

PEM ADVANTAGES

When used in place of a standard combustion-engine electrical generator, PEM fuel cells generally can provide up to 30% electrical efficiency, said McNeill.

“If you use the fuel cell system as a cogenerator, where it’s producing both electricity and hot water, then it’s possible to get around twice that number — about the 65% to 70% efficiency range.”

He noted that the PEM fuel cell “produces almost as much heat as it does electricity.” A residential cogeneration unit can be used to provide hot water for the house or be used for space heating, depending on the homeowner’s needs.

Regarding maintenance for a residential unit, McNeill said, “Once a year you would change the filters and perhaps the catalysts and reformer.” This could be part of the annual maintenance on the customer’s heating system.

The near-term targeted service life of the fuel cell system is at least five years, he remarked. Then it likely would be removed and replaced. Potential recycling of fuel cells is still in its infancy, he said.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells use hydrogen as the fuel and air as the oxidant. To convert the natural gas or propane supplied to the system over to hydrogen, a reformer is typically applied.

APPLICATIONS

Within the United States, H Power is working with a marketing partner, Energy Co-Opportunity, Inc. (ECO), which represents electricity cooperatives. ECO has put beta test units out in field applications including a house and small office. Similar beta testing is going on in Canada, Finland, France, and Japan.

Most recently, H Power announced that its products performed successfully in tests conducted by Concurrent Technologies Corp. (CTC) on behalf of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Expeditionary Force Battlelab (AEFB). One of the AEFB objectives is to accelerate emerging technologies to meet U.S. Air Force requirements.

The testing of H Power’s products included the use of one fuel cell system to power an office suite, followed by the use of the same fuel cell to operate a flight line lighting unit. A combination of three fuel cells was used to power industrial shop equipment and various aircraft support equipment.

In Japan, Osaka Gas Co., Ltd. (a natural gas utility serving customers in the Kansai area) is evaluating a residential cogeneration fuel cell system for the Japanese residential market, using the Osaka Gas compact fuel processor.

Gaz de France has partnered with H Power for the development of fuel cells in France. In addition, the two firms have begun the process of developing the CE codes and standards necessary for the sale and use of the products within any European Union member country.

Fortum/Naps, an international energy company based in Finland, has installed a residential cogeneration fuel cell unit in a test house in that country. This fuel cell is operating off a direct hydrogen source, using the waste hydrogen from a nearby chemical plant. The unit is designed to supply all the electricity and heat used by a typical household.

Because of the relatively high cost of a fuel cell system, residential and light commercial users will want to apply it as a cogenerator rather than just an electrical generator, to get maximum benefit.

“There is a natural synergy between fuel cells and the heating and cooling industry,” said McNeill. He would expect hvac contractors to be involved in the installation and maintainenance of fuel cells because “the same skill sets are involved.”

STANDARDS

One of the issues that needs to be addressed, McNeill affirmed, is fuel cell cogeneration standards, in order to understand what the implications are in putting these units into residential applications.

“There are really no standards right now in the U.S. governing the situation and placement of a residential cogeneration unit outside someone’s home,” he said. To get planning permission, standards will need to be developed for installation.

Installations in remote areas are simpler relative to urban applications, he said. In subdivisions, for example, local codes and standards are much more stringent and would have to be specifically addressed regarding connection procedures.

“What you’re talking about here is using a new fuel — hydrogen. People need to develop standards and levels of security in handling it, in the same way that they did for propane and natural gas.”

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is working on standards for portable units. “We would expect that the UL standards would come a little bit behind CSA’s.”

H Power’s first customers, said McNeill, will be rural, residential, and remote from the grid. “We think that the product will best meet their needs initially.”

GETTING STARTED

“Now is definitely the time to start thinking about the implications of this technology for the industry,” he asserted. There probably will not be a significant number of fuel cell installations until 2003, “but now is the time to really understand the technology if we’re going to use it in these ways.”

McNeill said his company has been getting feedback from hvac equipment manufacturers and contractors. The people that H Power has talked to, he related, are looking forward to fuel cells as a clean source of power.

PEM fuel cells can be used for applications from less than 1 W to 5 to 10 kW, and also to 100 kW or more for large commercial applications. It will be important to bring the cost down, he said, to make all the possible applications feasible.

Portable and mobile units are designed to be used as a backup system, running on direct hydrogen from a bottle.

Sidebar: Portable Power

In addition to manufacturing a residential cogenerator unit at 4.5-kW net output, H Power also produces portable and mobile products that run at 500 W. These products also will be commercially available in 2002.

The portable and mobile units, called EPAC, are designed to be used as a backup system running directly on hydrogen from a canister, for such use as providing 7 to 8 hrs of electricity to a home for critical applications, including operating a furnace or heat pump in the winter during a grid power outage.

Publication date: 01/21/2002

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