ClearEdge Power

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.

State Department inks clean energy deal; fuel cells find believers

Maybe it's just me. But every time I turn around, it seems as if clean energy has cleared another hurdle.

The latest to catch my eye is an announcement from the stodgy U.S. State Department, which inked a clean energy deal that it says won't cost anything but curtail CO2 emissions by about a third.

Not bad.

The deal involves Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, a utility-turned-energy-marketing company that offers a clean-energy portfolio of about 1,000 megawatts of renewable power generation. This power is either owned or under contract from sources that include utility-scale solar, hydro, wind and biomass power plants.

Last year the company completed its Criterion Wind project, a first for Maryland in commercial-scale wind energy. Constellation plans to begin building a commercial-scale solar energy facility also in western Maryland.

"This innovative agreement serves as a model for federal agency energy management," said Mayo A. Shattuck III, Constellation chairman, president and CEO, in a statement.

Federal facilities covered under the contract include part of the White House campus. Under the deal, a long-term power purchase agreement, Constellation Energy provides about 120,000 megawatt hours of energy annually to the State Department and other federal government facilities. Officials say the agreement encourages the development of new renewable energy facilities.

President Obama announced during his State of the Union speech that he had a goal generating 80 percent of the nation's power from clean energy. This, officials say, takes it a step in the right direction.

And on a lesser scale, there's this news from Hillsboro, Ore.-based ClearEdge Power, manufacturer of a line of residential fuel cells. I find the technology fascinating. I'm on the company's email list and normally give the announcements no more than a cursory look.

This one, however, caught my eye. ClearEdge said Jackie Autry, the former owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and widow of singer and actor Gene Autry, bought one of its fuel cells to heat and power to her Coachella Valley home.

Autry is quoted as saying the new system reduces carbon emissions as if she’d planted 6 acres of trees in her backyard. "I’m reducing my impact on the environment," she said. "It’s a home run."

The fuel cells save about 50 percent on utility costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third, according to the company. Fuel cells work by stripping hydrogen atoms of their electrons through a chemical reaction. The ionized hydrogen atoms carry a positive electrical charge, while negatively charged electrons provide the current through wires to do work. Oxygen entering the fuel cell combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and creates water.

Simple right? That's what she said.

ClearEdge also announced a deal to sell 12 of its ClearEdge5 units to the Irvine Unified School District. The fuel cells will power and heat the swimming pools at Woodbridge and University high schools and provide extra power as well. The company estimates each school will save about $18,000 a year.

So, let's keep this stuff coming. Clean energy should be more than an adventure. I'd like to see it become a viable sector of the economy. That provides jobs.

Fuel cells gain some traction

Last week, Southern California Gas reported that it invested $1 million into an Oregon fuel cell manufacturer.

The development is one of a couple recent high profile announcements putting the spotlight on a technology that has the potential to add another potent clean energy dynamic to the diversification of the world's energy sources. The industry is expected to expand tenfold in the next decade.

Hal Snyder, a SoCalGas vice president, said fuel cells, which produce power with a third less carbon than conventional means, provide customers with an offgrid energy option. And these units use natural gas. "SoCalGas is a leader in the push for new innovative green technologies," he said in a statement.

Toyota also said it was on track to market hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobiles by 2015 in California, Japan and Germany, according to Alan Ohnsman in a story on last week. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice president for research and product development, told Ohnsman at the Detroit Auto Show that Toyota aims to cut the cost of producing hydrogen cars to about half the $100,000 now required.

“I have high expectations for fuel-cell vehicles,” Uchiyamada is quoted as saying. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen many of the outstanding technical issues solved.”

Certainly, the business is expected to grow. Surrey, United Kingdom-based IntertechPira said in its report, "The Future of Clean Technologies," this summer that "the fuel cell and distributed hydrogen market are anticipated to grow from an estimated $2 billion industry in 2009 (primarily for research contracts and demonstration and test units) to more than $20 billion by 2019."

The technology developed for cars requires straight hydrogen. SoCalGas is going with a fuel cell that can tie right into existing gas lines that supply businesses and homes. Hillsboro, Ore.-based ClearEdge Power says its ClearEdge5 units are smaller than a refrigerator and can provide electricity to an entire house and heat for a pool.

So far, cost has been a major factor keeping hydrogen out of the consumer market. While, the concept is not altogether complex, the execution, at a reasonable cost, is.

Here's an edited version of how the Smithsonian Institution explains it: Hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell where a chemical reaction strips them of their electrons. The ionized hydrogen atoms carry a positive electrical charge while negatively charged electrons provide the current through wires to do work. Oxygen entering the fuel cell combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and creates water.

ClearEdge Power uses what it calls a "fuel reformer" on the front end of its fuel cell to extract hydrogen from natural gas.

Other projects also are moving forward. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. projected it would complete installation of two 1.4 megawatt fuel cell power plants on the campuses of California State University East Bay – Hayward Hills and San Francisco State University. The universities are expected to incorporate fuel cell technology into their respective curriculum, according to a statement by the Danbury, Conn.-based manufacturer Fuel Cell Energy.

Graphic: Smithsonian Institution