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It wasn’t too many year’s ago that many thought the U.S., and perhaps the world, was on track to be fueled by hydrogen. Hydrogen and fuel cells seemed a suitable replacement for petroleum fuels and internal combustion engines. Hydrogen packs plenty of energy. Cars and trucks would have the same get-up and go as running on gasoline or diesel fuel. With big enough tanks, fuel cell powered vehicles would have the same range per fill-up as conventional vehicles, but could also have unlimited range with hydrogen dispensed from pumps in a network of filling stations. And, big oil would be more than happy to provide hydrogen keeping them in fueling business.

It all sounded pretty good until reality and other technologies struck.

--- A hydrogen economy would have needed its own expensive fueling infrastructure. Think hundreds of billions of dollars to build it. Who would pay? Big oil wouldn’t do it without government help but government wasn’t all that interested.

--- Hydrogen is everywhere but has to be extracted. The cheapest way to get hydrogen was (and still is today) from natural gas, so the notion that fuel cell vehicles produced only water, well, vaporized. Extracting hydrogen from natural gas takes energy, plus when hydrogen is removed from natural gas the remainder is carbon dioxide (and an few other things) exactly what was trying to be avoided.

--- Other clean vehicle technologies picked up steam. Gasoline and diesel-electric hybrids gained popular acceptance. Lithium-ion batteries suddenly got much better thanks to the computer industry. Nearly as quickly as batteries improved, battery-electric vehicles poised to stage a comeback. (Battery electric vehicles had gotten shoved aside by the flirtation with a hydrogen economy.)

--- The economic crash of 2007-2008 didn’t help hydrogen commercialization and research.

But all this doesn’t mean a hydrogen economy isn’t possible. Some automakers are still toying with hydrogen fuel cells feeling that research and development on all technologies is justified in case one fails to catch on. Even without autos, a hydrogen economy may begin along another route, not with transportation but with fuel cells for stationary distributed power applications, and even better, fuel cells that offer combined heat and power.

Stationary fuel cells have fewer of the hurdles to leap compared to mobile devices. Weight and size of the machines isn’t much of an issue. Unlike those in cars they can be big and hefty, after all they’re not going anywhere. And, a new refueling infrastructure isn’t needed. Stationary machines can run on piped-in natural gas reformed on the spot to extract hydrogen. In much of the developed world the natural gas network is already in place.

True, there are carbon emissions when natural gas is the hydrogen source, but because of the high efficiency of fuel cells carbon emissions are considerably reduced compared with conventional power: A reduction by one half is usually quoted. Combined heat and power fuel cells with really high operating efficiencies reduce carbon emissions even further, much further. One company, Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited of Australia says that its BlueGen fuel cells have an electrical efficiency of 60 percent, making hot water at the same time jumps total efficiency up to 85 percent.

The high efficiency of distributed power fuel cells operating on natural gas would further extend natural gas supplies while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Further, since biogas is mostly methane, as is natural gas, it can also be used in fuel cells reducing or neutralizing carbon emissions.

What makes fuel cells better than other distributed generation sources, such as solar or conventional combustion-engine generators, diesel for example.

The solar answer is easy. Fuel cells could provide power 24/7, something solar can’t do for obvious reasons. (Darkness.) But fuel cells could also be reversed to make hydrogen using solar generated electricity thus storing the Sun’s energy for after hours.

Fuel cells are more efficient machines than combustion engines. So for those desiring to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions fuel cells are a good choice. Conventional diesel engines might convert fuel to mechanical energy energy at over 45 percent efficiency, which is pretty good, but 60 percent is better. In terms of exhaust even the best combustion still release noxious emissions like carbon monoxide. In terms of noise, nearly quiet fuel cells win hands down.

(A note here though: Combustion engines are improving too. There are new designs for engines in development that may rival fuel cells in efficiency, exhaust and noise.)

The ability of fuel cells to provide thermal energy, heat and hot water, should not be ignored. For many commercial, industrial and domestic applications, thermal energy is a big deal. Where would hotels, restaurants and food processing operations be without hot water? In a home or business in a cold climate, heat and hot water are as important as turning on the lights.

As with all distributed power there’s independence from grid. Independence means not just eliminating concerns about the fuel powering the grid, such as coal, but also about the reliability and quality of power. For highly computerized 24/7 operations, for example, a constant even flow of electricity is a must. The quality of power can be managed better when companies make it themselves. Added up, cutting emissions, supplying heat and power at the same time, and providing reliable quality power may offer a compelling reasons to invest in fuel cells.

And, of course, where cutting carbon emissions are under mandate, such as in the EU, fuel cells are on the list as options for their efficiency and low carbon footprint.

And it’s Europe where these two fuel cell deals were inked:

In Germany, sanevo blue energy has secured customers for its first order off 100 BlueGen fuel cell combined heat and power systems from Ceramic Fuel Cells, of Australia. After only six weeks of marketing sanevo (small “s” is correct) received commitments from public utilities in six German states as well as commercial and residential customers. To be delivered and installed over the next six months, sanevo will provide integration with hot water systems and include three or ten year full-service contract that include maintenance and support services. sanevo has a target minimum of delivery of 500 BlueGen units in its second year and 2000 units in years three and four.

As noted above the BlueGen units have an electrical efficiency of 60 percent, with hot water put to work overall efficiency goes up to 85 percent. Each unit is the size of a washing machine and can produce over 13000 kwh of electricity per year and up to 200 liters (52 gallons) of hot water per day. BlueGen units utilize solid oxide fuel cells and have a flexible electricity output from 0 to 2 kW.

In Austria, Gussing Renewable Energy, a provider of carbon-neutral energy solutions, has selected ClearEdge systems, of the US, to achieve its goal of producing 50 megawatts (MW) of clean distributed energy generation from fuel cells in the Republic of Austria by 2020. In the first phase of a multiphase $500 million agreement, one of the largest ever signed in the stationary fuel cell industry, ClearEdge Power will deliver 8.5 MW of clean energy over the next 36 months.

Headquartered in the Austrian town of Gussing, the first community in the European Union to produce 100 percent of its energy from renewable resources, Gussing Renewable Energy offers customizable and instantly usable carbon-neutral solutions that help communities produce clean, reliable energy. These solutions include proven anaerobic technology that can convert organic mass into high-purity biogas that can be used to cleanly and cost-effectively generate electric power and heat in fuel cells like the ClearEdge systems.

Under the agreement with ClearEdge Power, Gussing Renewable Energy has agreed to sell, install and service ClearEdge systems in Austria and also has the opportunity to foster adoption within Western European markets. The agreement builds on Gussing Renewable Energy’s participation in the recent ClearEdge Power Series E financing round and is designed to support the installation of 8.5 MW of fuel cell systems in Austria over the next 36 months, which will then rise to 50 MW by 2020.

ClearEdge units are about the size of a refrigerator, can provide as much as 5 kilowatts of power and hot water up to 150 degrees F.

Fuel cell generators from both companies could provide back-up and overnight energy for solar electric and solar hot water systems.

A hydrogen economy that started with stationary distributed power would be a good way to perfect fuel cell technology and bring costs down. If battery powered cars and trucks don’t make it, fuel cells could make a comeback for transporation.

Article posted by: (21 February 2012)
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