Last April, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a substantial investment of $114.3 million in funding - $41.9 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $72.4 million from industry - for the rapid deployment of approximately 1,000 fuel cell systems in key early markets. Many of these systems are now operating in backup power, combined heat and power (CHP), and material handling applications across the United States. And the technology validation team at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is watching and assessing the systems.

Using fuel cell systems for emergency backup power has been identified as one of the areas where fuel cells can compete with conventional technologies. Stationary fuel cells are also being utilized in CHP systems in larger residential and commercial applications.

The increase in manufacturing volume in these markets is expected to help bring costs down. A variety of technologies are being developed and deployed, including polymer electrolyte, solid oxide, and direct-methanol fuel cells.

Jennifer Kurtz, Todd Ramsden, Keith Wipke, and Sam Sprik of NREL’s Hydrogen Technologies and Systems Center are charged with providing an independent assessment of how these fuel cell systems fare in the real world, with a focus on performance, operation, and safety. The team is poised to release its first set of findings late this month.

“DOE selected these applications for fuel cell system deployment because they’re seen as key early markets where fuel cells can compete with conventional power technologies,” Kurtz said. “The unprecedented speed and scale of this deployment provide us with a unique opportunity to gather a significant amount of operational data very quickly.”

According to the NREL, accelerating the use of fuel cell technologies in these early market applications supports commercialization and helps build a domestic manufacturing and supplier base. It also expands the growth of the green job market, with new opportunities in manufacturing, fuel cell maintenance and support systems, and hydrogen production.

Publication date:02/22/2010