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Electricity In A Box

  There’s a box out there that makes electricity with very little pollution, and people are starting to get excited about it. It’s called a fuel cell.

  The box is a bit large at this point-developers are working to get it down to the size of a refrigerator. And it’s expensive, about $20,000 to locate one in your yard, producing electricity that would cost you more than seven times what you’re paying now.

But experts think that will change during the next 10 years. And for certain uses, even today’s sizes and price tags make sense. First Bank of Omaha in Nebraska has installed fuel cells in the hope of limiting computer downtime.

  Fuel cells combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen-which comes from fuels like methanol, propane, natural gas, or ammonia-to produce electricity. They work efficiently and produce minimal pollution-their only byproducts are water and a small amount of carbon dioxide.

  The technology could be used by people building homes in isolated rural areas, says Jeff Almen, with Energy Co-Opportunity (ECO), a Herndon, Virginia-based group for electric cooperatives. ECO will begin testing fuel cells in rural homes next year both as backup generators and to permanently power whole houses. ECO hopes fuels cells could save as much as $25,000 on the cost of extending a power line to a distant home or outbuilding, he says.

So far, fuel cells, which were invented in 1839, are used by the military, the space program, and some hospitals as a backup energy source for solar-powered road signs.

  While the limited introduction of fuel cells small enough for home use may come within two years, tiny ones for laptops and mobile phones-which will require refueling from small plastic cartridges like the ones that refill pens with ink-are at least 10 years away.

  Even then, the devices are likely to cost more than most people can shell out. Almen says the co-ops’ initial fuel cell will cost about $8,000, which he figures is about $3,000 more than most homeowners would be willing to pay.

  But he predicts the price will fall low enough in about five years to entice rural consumers to buy or lease fuel cells from their electric cooperatives to power outbuildings and other structures that can’t get electricity now.

  And companies might build factories in low-cost, out-of-the-way rural stretches if they can fuel their buildings without paying for the construction of power lines, Almen predicts.

  ECO, which will distribute fuel cells being developed by a Belleville, New Jersey, company, H Power, has some competition: Detroit Edison’s parent company, DTE Energy, has joined forces with Southern California Gas and General Electric to form Plug Power, a Latham, New York, company that promises to bring residential fuel cells to the market in 2001 for between $7,500 and $10,000. Canada-based Ballard Power Systems and Sunbeam Corp.’s Coleman Powermate Inc. are using fuel cells to develop portable and backup power-generating products.

  The use of fuel cells in cars, however, is what might whittle the cost of the technology enough to make it an affordable alternative to plug-in power at home.

  “That application will mean high volume, and high volume means lower prices,” says Doug Herman, manager of distributive resource applications for the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California.

General Motors, a leader in research on electric cars-which run on rechargeable batteries-showcased its Precept, a prototype of a fuel cell car, in January. The company says the car will be able to travel 500 miles on the electricity generated by its fuel cell before its hydrogen tank needs refueling-the equivalent of 108 miles per gallon. Ford and DaimlerChrysler already have shown fuel cell cars and predict they will be in some stage of production by

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