Fuel cells and solar, match made in heaven?

For years, candy maker Reese's TV commercials found scads of ways to strangely combine chocolate and peanut butter.

After yelling, "Who got peanut butter in my chocolate?" and the reverse, the protagonist and antagonist would agree after about 20 seconds that they've stumbled on something wonderful.

How about applying that same analogy to solar and fuel cells? Solar produces clean but intermittent energy. Fuel cells are constant, and they're considered clean tech and very low impact even though creation of and use of their fuels -- hydrogen and natural gas -- can create some greenhouse gases.

The combination -- fitted to business parks, warehouses and other large structures -- could provide miniature energy centers. The sites I envision would be be small but could generate a surplus of energy, especially during peak production times, and sell that energy on the grid.

Decentralized energy

The concept of decentralized energy production is relatively new, at least in its current form. Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California" put these thoughts in my head. In the report, he talks about putting solar on multiple buildings and about how the practice has the capacity to seriously clean the air as well as meet the 33 percent renewable requirement of the state of California.

DOE's 2010 Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report says sales of fuel cells continue to grow. In fact, fuel cell units shipped from North America quadrupled between 2008 and 2010. "Grocery stores and high-tech industries remain strong customers, with well-known companies like eBay, Google, Bank of America, Safeway, Walmart and FedEx using fuel cells. One customer saves $1 million annually," it says.

Fuel cells come in a variety of versions. The one I mention here is stationary, but others are used in cars and buses (remember the Winter Olympics?) and tiny ones may be used to power personal electronic devices.

Robert Trezone, technology director of London-based Carbon Trust, said in a post that fuel cells could give electric vehicles long range, enabling them to carry a much smaller battery to manage variable power requirements.

Yet, Trezone says, "Two roadblocks remain before hydrogen fuel cell cars can become mainstream however: a reduction in fuel cell system costs and clean, affordable hydrogen fuel distribution."

Would solar-fuel cell combo work?

Bloom Energy, among other manufacturers, has been selling a lot of its fuel cells recently. Bloom scored with sales to AT&T and NTT America. I happened to sit next to one of the company's sales reps at a strategic planning meeting for my nonprofit last month and it got me thinking about the fuel cell-solar union.

David Cesca, an account manager with the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company, nodded his head thoughtfully when I mentioned my idea. "It could work," he said.

But I'm no futurist.

Deregulation possible byproduct

Would solar-fuel cell power centers potentially create multiple competitors to utilities if these remote producers generate a surplus of power and are able to sell it -- or demand payment -- on the open market? They certainly wouldn't need power from the utilities if their systems are big enough.

I tried tracking down an analyst with the appropriate world view, somebody who could pull a forecast from the murky future. But, so far, no such luck. I'll weigh in with another post should this concept generate feedback.

I did find quite a bit of activity regarding fuel cells. In addition to Bloom, ClearEdge Power, Ballard Power Systems, FuelCell Energy, IdaTech and Plug Power also are well capitalized and viable.

The thing is, we need all the clean energy diversification we can get. Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees, at least in principal.

"Every day in this country, we send about $1 billion abroad just to buy imported oil, money we’d be better off investing in good manufacturing jobs here at home," Lehner writes in a post on the proposed U.S. fuel mileage standards for cars and light trucks of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Lehner says presidents going back to Richard Nixon have tried to break U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He says it's even more important now.

Fuel cells and Congress

Certainly fuel cells are moving along technologically. And they're getting support in Congress.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has announced a plan to install a fuel cell backup power system at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base near Columbus, Ohio. The installation is part of a federal agency partnership to install fuel cells at eight military bases around the country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory will monitor performance and collect data.

And Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, has unveiled a measure that would expand fuel cell vehicle tax breaks to include forklifts. The current tax credit provides incentives for cars and trucks, and a separate credit for power generation.

Consultant Reportlinker just released a report in which it expects fuel cells to post unprecedented growth in near future and sustain that pace. Factors include "best efficiency amongst energy sources, related market potential, environment friendly operation, and support towards reducing dependence on oil."

DOE's market report says fuels cell companies in the United States have attracted $774.4 million in investment over the past decade. Yet, it says challenges remain despite the power sources being in homes, grocery stores, warehouses, commercial and industrial buildings, and "even the Golden Globe Awards." It says more widespread adoption requires a further reduction in costs and increase in reliability and performance.

The challenges sound very much the same as those facing the solar industry. But the market is adopting both technologies. We'll see how it turns out.