Fuel cells

Net-zero construction gains ground in U.S.

Apollo 11 touched down on the Sea of Tranquility with the world watching.

The date was July 20, 1969.

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed," the spacecraft announced. Some hours later Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took man's first steps on the Moon followed closely by fellow spaceman Buzz Aldrin.

Their footprints at Tranquility Base likely remain, a small sign of a massive accomplishment.

NASA's back in the historic footprint game again but in an entirely different way. The space agency, now somewhat redirected and fiscally leaner with the closure of the Space Shuttle program, has been constructing a facility that takes inspiration for its name from Tranquility Base and seeks to be a landmark in another sense, leaving as little footprint as possible.

Here on Earth

Sustainability Base, at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., has been dubbed NASA's latest mission on Earth. The facility has received LEED platinum certification, the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating by the U.S. Green Building Council. Its design incorporates natural lighting, shading and fresh air. The interior boasts non-toxic materials and is, according to NASA, "a living prototype for buildings of the future."

The net-zero movement -- designing and building structures to make as little impact on the environment as possible -- is gaining steam, albeit slowly.

Commercial and residential buildings consume about 40 percent of all energy in the United States and about 70 percent of all electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And electricity consumption in the commercial building sector is expected to increase another 50 percent by 2025.

The net-zero or zero-energy building concept means commercial or residential buildings meet all their energy requirements from low-cost, locally available, nonpolluting, renewable sources, according to "Zero Energy Buildings: A Critical Look at the Definition," a 2006 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "At the strictest level, a ZEB generates enough renewable energy on site to equal or exceed its annual energy use," the study says.

Lunar design influence

Sustainability Base, which is shaped like two side-by-side crescents, gets its power from solar panels, wind energy and fuel cells. It's also chock full of other technologies that make it "capable of anticipating and reacting to changes in sunlight, temperature, wind and occupancy," officials say.

“What makes our building different than the other NASA LEED buildings is that preliminary data are already showing a net-energy positive profile. The building site contributes more energy to the grid than it receives from the grid," says Steven Zornetzer, associate center director for research at Ames, in a description of the base on Ames' website.

Because it also incorporates repurposed NASA aerospace technologies to optimize building performance, Sustainability Base's features cooler statistics than other net-zero buildings. For instance, it uses computational fluid dynamics to simulate environmental flows in and outside the building. This can mean air flows such as wind outside and air flow inside. The building's electronic systems calculate this information and incorporate the data into the heating and cooling systems, saving money in conventional heating and cooling.

Movement expands

Many efforts are under way to reduce production of greenhouse gases from the building sector. Retrofits of existing buildings, such as the iconic Empire State Building, have gained recognition, mostly because the energy-saving upgrades pay for themselves relatively quickly.

Measures are under way in a number of areas. They include sustainability policies from some of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies, efforts by states to increase efficiency through building codes (California's new rules took effect in 2011), programs by the U.S. Department of Energy to fund energy efficiency retrofits in municipal government buildings across the country and the whole house and passive house movements to increase efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.

The U.S. Department of Energy is seeking to develop the technology and a knowledge base for cost-effective zero-energy commercial buildings by 2025. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory already has created a classification system for net-zero energy buildings to aid in the standardization process. NREL's Research Support Facility on its Golden, Colo. campus also was certified LEED platinum and uses 50 percent less energy than if built simply to code. It's massive, too: 360,000 square feet.

Passive house

There's also the passive house movement gaining followers in this country. The practice is reaching quite a fervor in Europe. A house at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History designed with no furnace has been completed and is already catching attention. The residence, which uses passive house design and technology, cuts its greenhouse gas footprint and utility costs to the quick. SmartHome Cleveland received a national attention. One story said: "Because the house is so well insulated, it can hold heat from sunshine, body heat, lights and appliances."

The idea behind passive houses is that they use 90 percent less energy than a conventionally outfitted home of the same size. This also could apply to commercial buildings, but most information I've seen seems to keep this trend firmly entrenched in residential construction, at least in this country.

Passive House Institute U.S. defines the concept this way: It's a "very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source."

The push is to carbon neutrality.

The Passive House Institute says in the past decade about 15,000 buildings, mostly in Europe, have been designed and built or remodeled to passive house specifications. It's a small number but could gain significant influence as others see the lifetime benefits and reduced operating expenses -- not to mention the ecological rewards.

Energy Partnerships: Coming To A Project Near You

Oil and water don't mix, but maybe oil and solar power do. A marriage between the two at Chevron well in Coalinga, just down the road from my office in Fresno, started me thinking about other possible energy partnerships.

My colleague, Mike Nemeth, explored the potential relationship between solar and fuel cells in this post and here - especially how they could work in decentralizing energy.

The city of Tulare, which is about 45 minutes from Fresno, has established a showcase partnership to slash costs at the energy-hogging wastewater treatment plant. The combo includes methane digester gas, fuel cells, solar power and, soon, a 1.2 megawatt, 6-hour battery. The battery will store part of the solar energy during the day and discharge it at night for peak shaving, says Public Works Director Lew Nelson.

Nelson said he's not aware of any similar combination in use at a water treatment facility.

But there are other types of energy partnerships. For example, a Walmart distribution center in Canada opened in 2010 with wind turbines and solar panels on its roof, and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Read more here and here.

The possibilities are almost endless. Steve Leone of RenewableEnergyWorld has some ideas Here . I'm especially intrigued by the prospects of combing solar and geothermal: a true marriage of heaven and earth.

Photo of City of Tulare fuel cell project

Microgrids, solar and achieving energy independence

Comedian George Wallace often starts a joke with the line, "I be thinking."

I use the reference for two reasons. First, I saw Wallace in Vegas recently (and I totally recommend his show) and second, because I'd been thinking about teaming solar with fuel cells to create power producers on a small scale via energy-independent homes, commercial buildings and industrial scale operations.

The conclusion? The merger is possible. But more importantly, the query introduced me to the concept of microgrids and the Galvin Electricity Initiative.

I'd posed the question of fuel cell-solar viability to Al Weinrub, who penned the report, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California." Weinrub, coordinator of the San Francisco Bay Area Local Clean Energy Alliance, said quite a few people have been thinking in the direction of microgrids, which he defined as "islands of self-sufficient energy producers that are independent of the grid or possibly networked into the grid."

Galvin Electricity Initiative

And he said the group includes folks who want to create net-zero communities not dependent on the grid. He introduced me to the Galvin Electricity Initiative, founded by former Motorola Chairman and CEO Robert Galvin. The initiative addresses a revamped utility system incorporating microelectrity production. Galvin's proposal is meant to be a catalyst for transforming America’s electric grid to "ways that are profoundly beneficial to consumers, the environment and the economy."

"In these models, fuel cells can play a role, but there is little reason to go to fossil-based fuel cells," Weinrub said. "That would only prolong the use of fossil fuels."

He compared it to combined heat and power technology, "where ultimately it makes sense only if the source of heat is renewable fuel."

I believe Weinrub's response is perfect and gives me perspective on fuel cells, which can be fueled with natural gas.

Oil still in system

I'm a little awash in oil with my Alaska background so petroleum taints my world view.

It was big news up north when the cat train went up to Prudhoe Bay for the first time in the winter of 1968, followed by a collective "Holy (moly), there's work and they're paying $24 an hour" from the hundreds of un- or underemployed in the Alaska Interior. I was 10 in '71 but eventually worked in the oil patch one summer in Bismark, N.D. building concrete weights for a 48-inch diameter pipeline.

So I'm somewhat impressed by North Dakota's current performance in petroleum exports. Steve Everly of the Kansas City Star writes, "Perhaps within a year the state is expected to supply more oil for domestic use than the 1.1 million barrels a day that Saudi Arabia now exports to the United States."

Likewise, I'm intrigued by the Canada tar sands pipeline.

Bill McKibben would yell at me. I know, I know. But my perspective is a little old-fashioned. We used wood heat for six years back in very rural Fairbanks in the early 1970s during mom's Last Whole Earth Catalog phase. Eighteen cords a season is a lot to cut and split, believe me. I was disgusted by coal on a personal level as sub-bituminous sends dust everywhere and creates a haze in your house. But rich people had propane tanks. And I still marvel at running water. Melting snow is a pain and rainwater gets mosquito infested quick -- although the Aussies have perfected those systems.

Moving beyond fossil fuel

I ramble, but I guess I'm using this navel gazing to understand the feelings of my generation. It's tough to move on from burning whatever we could get our hands on.

At some point, solar panels on newly constructed homes will be commonplace. But I agree with multiple studies that call for added government support for renewables as right now, a 19.5-year return on investment is hard to justify by homeowners like myself. Although my co-worker just plunked down about $30,000 for a solar system on his home.

Growth is unsustainable

I was fascinated by Asher Miller's video "Who killed economic growth?" In it Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, says we've been seduced by cheap energy and the concept that constant growth fueled by industrialization is the way it should be. His contention is there are limits we've been ignoring and that change is coming to a screen near you quite soon.

People like Weinrub, Miller and McKibben are the visionaries who will prod at least a percentage of us in the right direction, and hopefully we'll be able to guide movement toward something that enables us to see the Sierra on a non-rainy day. Running in Valley air is really pretty nasty.

Right now I'm doing my best to help. I'm working on guiding the 39 cities and counties to install energy saving projects. I administer stimulus energy efficiency grants, and it's been a long haul from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009. The retrofit projects are lighting, pumps, ACs and other stuff, but all are big on energy savings. I'll be done on most of them by March.

Going net-zero

Many of these cities want to install solar, so in my free time I'm trying to find out ways to do that cheaply. Their big expenses (most of these communities are rather small) are pumping for water and waste water. For instance, Pump No. 8 in one Merced County town runs 24 hours a day during the hot season and costs upwards of $58,000 per month.

Such spiraling costs create incentive as does California's requirement that energy suppliers provide a third of their electricity through renewables by 2020.

Maybe a San Joaquin Valley city will go net-zero. Progressive Firebaugh, perhaps? Santa Monica is pushing in that direction. Cities in Norway and Germany reportedly have reached the threshold.

We'll see how it works out.

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.

A Salad Basket of Green News

The San Joaquin Valley is known as the world's salad bowl because we produce so many crops - about $20 billion annually.

With that theme in mind comes today salad basket of green news, along with links:

1/ I don't like heights, so changing careers to become a wind technician is out. But here's a video of a former cabinetmaker who did just that in Tehachapi. You would never catch me up there! This is courtesy of CNN and Solardude1: http://vikingmservices.blogspot.com/2009/06/segment-on-california-generating-green.html

2/ The DOE 2010 report on wind energy. Some headwinds possible: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro/pdfs/51783.pdf

3/ A 2010 recap of fuel cells, which are expanding rapidly ( Includes photo of Tulare fuel cell project. Pictured above):

4/ New Brookings report on Green jobs, with figures for Fresno, Bakersfield and other metropolitan areas:.http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2011/0713_clean_economy.aspx

Clean Energy: At The Precipice

Clean power (which to us consists of renewables and energy efficiency) is an industry on the cusp. Announcements of advancements and new gee whiz technology come seemingly each week, and keeping current is almost a full-time gig.

The use of fuel cells and solar energy is surging as technology improves. This Pike Research report notes that fuel cells have jumped from the research and development stage to commercialization. Shipments of fuel cells - most of them stationary systems - increased an annual average of 27% between 2008 and 2010.

Japanese homeowners have embraced them - about 5,000 houses there are powered by fuel cells - and they are becoming increasingly common in hospitals and hotels. As an aside, it should be noted that fuel cells are gaining a higher profile here in the San Joaquin Valley, where Odwalla and the city of Tulare, among others, are using them.

Check out this Webinar from the Department of Energy for more on how local businesses are using fuel cells.

Solar also has advanced, as greentechsolar notes here, but 2011 and 2012 are likely to be more challenging as austerity becomes a key watchword. Oversupply is possible, greentechsolar states in the article, as funds pull back.

Whether renewables gain a stronger foothold in the next few years remains to be seen - fits and starts are to be expected in the early stages of an emerging industry - but we are encouraged by the involvement of Big Business and the military.

The other component - efficiency and conservation - clearly has gone beyond the fringe stage. Stories of minimal economic investment reaping maximum energy and cost savings are everywhere. Companies, cities and schools are discovering that weatherization, upgraded air conditioners, more efficient lighting and smarter use of electricity add to the bottom line.

Even a Journalism major like me understands that investment in energy efficiency makes sense. There are only two ways to create cash flow: get more money or spend less - conservation falls into the latter category. Businesses, landlords and homeowners who cut their power bills have more money to spend, invest or otherwise stimulate the economy.

That's why federal Department of Energy officials call energy efficiency the "low-hanging fruit" of clean energy. And low-hanging fruit is something that residents of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the most productive farming regions in the world, know something about.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells

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: Space-Age Technology Lands In California

Fuel cells, which have been used to power space craft, are now helping supply the energy needs of manufacturers and retailers here on Earth, including an Odwalla facility in Dinuba.

Bloom Energy, developer of the Bloom Box, recently finished installing five natural gas fuel cells at the Tulare County plant. The biogas-fed cells will supply about 30% of the annual power needs, according to this story in The Business Journal.

Odwalla, owned by Coca Cola, is marching toward a more sustainable future. “Reducing our environmental footprint and our dependence on non-renewable resources is just as important to Odwalla as making great tasting, nourishing beverages,” Alison Lewis, Odwalla's president said in The Business Journal story. “In addition to celebrating the completion of our fuel cell installation, we’re looking forward to rolling out our innovative PlantBottle packaging and kicking off our annual Plant a Tree program later this year.”

Fuel cells can convert a variety of fuel sources into electricity. Increasingly, they are being used throughout the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere. Bloom Energy counts Walmart, Staples, Kaiser Permanente and California Institute of Technology as customers.

Walmart has deployed two 400 kw systems at two stores in Southern California, and plans more. The world's largest retailer eventually wants to use renewable sources to fulfill all its power needs, A Walmart spokesman says in this this Bloom Energy press release.

Photo of Odwalla fuel cells by Pitchengine.com

Tulare Project A Showcase For Renewable Energy

When it comes to on-site energy generation, the city of Tulare is in some pretty heady company.

The community of 60,000 people uses biogas and fuel cells, and is installing solar power to help power its wastewater treatment plant. The ambitious clean-energy program, described in this case-study analysis, netted the city a 16th-place ranking on the Environmental Protection Agency's national list of top 20 producers of on-site power. That follows an award from the California Sustainability Alliance last year.

With 9.5 million kilowatts of annual generation coming from green power, this city in the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley ranked ahead of supermarket chain Safeway and just behind Macy's stores in California and Hawaii. And those production figures are likely to increase when city officials finish installing the fourth fuel cell and grant-funded solar plant.

About 38% of the electricity used to power the wastewater treatment plant comes from on-site green sources. The completion of the solar system (partially financed with Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants) and additional fuel cell will boost on-site green power usage even more - probably enough to push it up to 13th on the list - just behind Kohl's Department Store, said Lewis Nelson, city public works director.

Nelson says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. In 2010, Tulare was expected to save about $570,000 with the system.

The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.

Tulare is the largest governmental user of electricity in Tulare County, much larger even than Visalia which has twice the population. "That is because we have seven large cheese plants in Tulare and a separate industrial wastewater treatment plant for that high-strength wastewater," Nelson says.

The city's new industrial treatment plant, with a capacity of 12 million gallons per day, is tied with one in South Carolina for the largest in the nation, he says. It is the fourth-largest in the world.

Tulare is the only San Joaquin Valley city on a list that includes San Diego (No. 2 with 69 million kilowatts of green power generated from biogas, small hydro and solar), San Jose (No. 6 and biogas), San Francisco (No. 9 with biogas and solar) and Portland (No. 10 with an impressive mixture of biogas, small hydro, solar and wind).

The largest on-site green-power generator is Kimberly-Clark, which produces a whopping 176.5 million kilowatts through biomass. The U.S. Air Force (biogas, solar and wind), Walmart in California and Texas and a BMW manufacturing plant in South Carolina round out the top five.

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 bloomberg.com 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

Could Fuel Cells Power The Green Movement In California?

Fuel cells aren't new - electricity aboard the Gemini 5 spacecraft in 1965 came from one - but they aren't so space age anymore.

More businesses and local governments are relying on them to help reduce their carbon footprint, capitalize on renewable fuels and to generate power. At least four systems are in the San Joaquin Valley and, as this Los Angeles Times story notes, they are "popping up" throughout the state.

Bloom Energy, a young Bay area company, has received lots of press lately for its fuel cells. Coca Cola announced this year that it would test fuel Bloom Energy cells powered by biogas at an Odwalla plant in Dinuba, in Tulare County. The five cells could produce almost one-third of the plant's power, and cut its carbon footprint 35%.

Fuel cells also generate power at a 400,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse in Stockton; use methane gas created from a wastewater treatment facility to provide power to the Turlock Irrigation District; and use biogas as an onsite renewable energy source at a regional wastewater plant in Tulare.

The California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative, administered by the Air Resources Board, has information on more projects throughout the state.

It remains to be seen how popular fuel cells become - they can be the size of a vehicle and cost a bundle to install - but, if they work as intended, could make a substantial dent in an entity's carbon footprint and power bills.

The federal government has an ambitious agenda for fuel cell research, appropriating $74 million over three years. "The investments we're making today will help advance fuel cell technology in the United States," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday. "This is part of a broad effort to create American jobs, reduce carbon pollution, and help ensure the U.S. stays competitive in the growing clean energy economy."

Fuel cells use the chemical energy of hydrogen or other fuels to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity or heat with minimal byproducts, primarily water. They can produce power in large stationary systems such as buildings or for vehicles such as commercial forklifts, buses and automobiles.

Lewis Nelson, public works director in Tulare, says fuel cells are well suited for wastewater treatment plants. They take biogas from anaerobic treatment of wastewater solids or animal manure and generate electricity. In 2010, Tulare is expected to save about $570,000 with the system.

"A treatment plant uses a lot of electricity, and can generally use all the electricity a fuel cell generates internally, saving the cost of purchasing electricity from a utility," Nelson says. "I think that biogas fuel cells are an excellent renewable electricity technology for wastewater treatment plants."

Tulare is currently installing its fourth fuel cell. The city's investment after a $4 million incentive was $3 million, which means it could recoup its costs within five years.

(Photo of Tulare fuel cell by snowdenelectric.com)