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The Fuel Cell Energy Option

Americans depend on three major ways to generate electricity–burning coal to produce steam to spin turbines, nuclear reactors to produce steam for turbines, and hydro power–falling water that turns turbines directly.

Only about 14 percent of our domestic electric energy comes from other sources. But the quest for alternative energy continues. Energy diversity–electricity generated from a greater variety of sources–will be an important part of the future.

Electric cooperatives and other companies are investigating new energy technologies. While solar power and wind power projects tend to grab headlines, other options are becoming realities.

In his January 2003 State of the Union Address, President Bush proposed spending more than $1 billion to develop a hydrogen-powered, non-polluting automobile. The technology he had in mind, fuel cells, already exists, but in a rather specialized and enormously expensive way–hydrogen fuel cells provide energy for space flights.

A fuel cell is like a battery, but with important differences. Batteries produce electricity through an internal chemical reaction, but corrode and deteriorate as the initial chemicals are used up.

The chemical reaction in a fuel cell, however, differs in two ways. First, it is continuous as long as hydrogen is available as the fuel. Second, the things that emerge from a fuel cell are electricity, heat, and water, reducing pollution concerns.

Five years ago, 300 electric cooperatives formed a new co-op called Energy Co-opportunity (ECO) to investigate ways to diversify the nation’s supply of electric energy. Based in Herndon, Virginia, ECO’s first efforts focused on fuel cell development.

ECO Director of Energy Solutions and Marketing Paul Smith says, “We’re taking advantage now of the experience we gained with early field testing to help other companies evaluate their progress. There are a lot of products out there now and the technology to make fuel cells works pretty well. The problem is where to find the hydrogen.” Smith points out that the infrastructure to make hydrogen available to potential customers doesn’t exist yet; there’s no network of corner “hydrogen stations” like there are corner gas stations.

Instead, a practical way to provide hydrogen for fuel cells is to extract it from a fossil fuel such as propane, a resource that people already have experience with storing on-site.

Providing co-op customers with electricity from fuel cells operating with on-site propane tanks may prove to be the best way to provide electricity in remote locations, places where a regular distribution line simply costs too much.

But a more significant reason to use fuel cell technology may help it become more widespread. Many electricity users need uninterrupted power supplies (UPS) to maintain operations: hospitals, nursing homes, and many computer-oriented businesses can’t operate without electricity, even for a moment. Systems that use hydrogen-powered fuel cells are already providing UPS systems in many test programs.

Many companies are steadily progressing toward commercialization of fuel cells. Plug Power, a fuel-cell development company, already has 78 fuel cell units producing electricity in real-world situations.

Demonstrating that fuel cell technology works is only part of the story, though. It must also be economical, and right now electricity from fuel cells costs a lot more than from traditional sources. Among the ways researchers are trying to make fuel cells more cost-effective is to find uses for the surplus heat produced during the creation of electricity.

To find out more about fuel cells, visit these Web sites:


Next month: Electric Cars

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