The hydrogen economy

Rolling blackouts, school closures, business shutdowns, 28 consecutive days of threatened blackouts not something you'd expect from the world's sixth largest economy. Yet in the opening months of 2001, California didn't know from one hour to the next where it would get its next watt of electricity. In response to the California crisis, the Bush administration has called for increased domestic oil

Rolling blackouts, school closures, business shutdowns, 28 consecutive days of threatened blackouts — not something you'd expect from the world's sixth largest economy. Yet in the opening months of 2001, California didn't know from one hour to the next where it would get its next watt of electricity.

In response to the California crisis, the Bush administration has called for increased domestic oil and gas exploration. But given mounting evidence about global warming, due in large part to fossil fuel use, such an energy strategy may prove to be shortsighted. Now, more than ever, the stage is set for the development of alternative energy technologies.

New sources of power generation are needed, and the hydrogen economy and fuel cells may provide a possible solution. Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, but it does not exist alone. Hydrogen is commonly found in water, (H2O), natural gas (CH2), coal, petroleum, land biomass and wastewater. It can also be harnessed from the sun, which is actually 75% hydrogen. Extracting this hydrogen from its various sources in an economic and non-polluting manner is one element of this new hydrogen economy; the other is using this hydrogen for transportation and for power generation.

Research and development funds for fuel cell technology have increased in recent years as the government and investors understand that energy usage will only increase. The Department of Energy's $100 million grant for fuel-cell development in 2001 is joined by additional federal and state funds.

And while the fuel-cell tech stocks suffered nosedives like everything else on NASDAQ, the companies are predicting a rebound. After all, energy is as basic as food and water, and is a linchpin to economic survival.

Just how electricians and electrical contractors will fit in with this new technology is starting to unfold. A new section, Article 691, has been proposed for the NEC 2002 to deal with fuel cell electrical energy systems installed as the primary electrical power source for a building or a residential dwelling. The suggested Code requirements deal only with wiring the fuel cell to a distribution panel; the installation will be handled under some other requirements. Suggestions to piggyback the information with Article 690, which was introduced in 1984 to deal with photovoltaic systems, were brushed aside in favor of devoting a whole section to this emerging technology.


The five different available fuel-cell types differ in terms of their catalysts, which are substances used to increase the rate of the chemical reaction. Residential units are about the size of a refrigerator, while car units are the size of large batteries. Fuel cells used for distributed energy are considerably larger with a mid-range size of 10 feet × 10 feet × 20 feet.

One major application for these fuel cells lies in the transportation sector, which is leading fuel cell development. Auto manufacturers are struggling to meet deadlines for toughened vehicle emission standards. The fuel cell powered cars qualify as zero or near-zero emission vehicles. Four auto manufacturers say they will have fuel cell vehicles available by 2004, and already fuel-cell-powered buses are operating in Chicago; Vancouver, Canada; and Oakland, Calif. Cars powered by fuel cells are seen as superior to battery-powered cars because they are lighter, don't require recharging and disposal and can attain and sustain higher speeds.

Ballard Power Systems, Vancouver, Canada, is the leader in the field of fuel cells for transportation. Efficient distribution of the hydrogen remains one of the major roadblocks to the spread of fuel-cell powered cars.

Within the power generation category, fuel-cell development is proceeding on three main fronts: commercial, residential and portable.

More than 200 prototype commercial fuel cells are in operation around the world. Distributed generation, meaning generators providing less than 20MW, is the latest buzzword in energy production circles as suppliers move away from huge centralized plants with steep transmission and siting costs. Fuel cells, along with microturbines, can fill this niche. Two utility companies, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and New York Power Authority (NYPA), are incubators for these new technologies. Results of these monitored experiments will provide many answers about the “wheres” and “hows” of future commercial fuel cell production.

LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the world, has contracted for three 250 kW fuel cell plants to be installed within the county. The first, currently being installed at LADWP headquarters, will initially be connected to the grid for testing. Within six months, the fuel cell plant will actually provide power to the building. Bill Glauz, manager of distributed generation for LADWP, said fuel cell plants will be sited in fast-growing areas that need additional generation.

He added that ultimately the viability of the fuel cells would come down to cost. “The actual materials needed for the unit aren't that expensive,” Glauz said. “It is a chicken-and-egg scenario. You have to have increased production to bring down the costs but you are not going to have increased production until the units become more economically manageable.”

The LADWP units are funded under the Public Benefits Program with the money originating from the 1996 California's deregulation act. The public utility is also committing its resources towards developing solar power for its 3.7 million customers. The electricians and mechanics installing the fuel cells go through training sessions provided by the manufacturer, Fuel Cell Energy Inc., Danbury, Conn.

NYPA is the largest non-federal public power organization in the United States, providing one-fourth of New York State's electricity. The three fuel cells the company has recently installed reflect the possible uses of these generation facilities.

NYPA's latest installment, a 200kW fuel cell at the North Central Bronx Hospital, serves as supplementary power and as a back-up generator to meet the hospital's need for uninterrupted power supply. The hospital still receives most of its power off the main grid. Fuel cells are considered an optimum choice for critical services such as hospitals, police, fire and government agencies that require stable off-grid power. Businesses that cannot afford the sag or spikes of grid voltage represent another prime market.

Another 200 kW fuel cell installed at the Central Park Police Unit provides all the power for the unit. Inadequate underground power feeders that were estimated to cost $1.2 million to upgrade made this off-grid power installment economically practical. Fuel cells meet power demands for applications not easily reachable from existing above-ground or underground feeders.

NYPA's third unit, a wastewater treatment plant in Yonkers, N.Y., is the perfect site for fuel cell generation. The 200 kW plant uses anaerobic digester gas, a by-product of wastewater treatment, as its hydrogen source. A similar 1MW fuel cell plant will open next year at a wastewater treatment plant in King County, Wash. These self-contained power-producing generators could conceivably be used at the more than 500 municipal wastewater treatment plants in the United States. With the cost of natural gas quadrupling in the past 12 months, using an internally produced fuel presents a vast economic gain.

New York Power Authority has received DOE money for each of these projects.

Mike Saltzman of the NYPA said, “Our hope is that our projects will serve as a model and that the cost of these technologies will drop — making them available to all. As an organization that reports to the federal government and the legislature, we are more than bottom-line oriented. We are concerned with clean air. We are concerned about depleting the earth's resources. This development of new resources is about our partnership with the public.”

A process that none of the above generators use but which could increase the efficiency and savings from the fuel-cell units is reusing the released heat for space and water heating. This would give the plants an efficiency rating of more than 75% — a huge contrast to the more common 30% rating of fossil-fueled plants.

The fuel-cell units for the above agencies are being provided by FuelCell Energy, which provides three baseline models to utilities — 250KW, 1.5MW and 3MW, which can then be combined for different capacities. Bill Baker, a spokesperson for the company, said, “Our main focus right now is to get the unit field trials underway, get the operating data from the field and then translate that data into the final product that we are going to sell commercially.”

While FuelCell has been aided by governmental incentives that help prime the market, Baker said that is only good for the short-term. “Ultimately, we have to be able to sell the system on its own merits without subsidies,” he said. FuelCell, which has been working on fuel cells in the stationary market for the past 30 years, hopes to be booking its first commercial orders by the end of the year.


The next area of fuel cell development is in residential units, generally in the 5kW to 7kW range. These units are still in the testing phase. H Power, a Clifton, N.J. firm, is running experimental units in New York and France. Plug Power Inc., Latham, N.Y., in partnership with General Electric, is also running trials and hopes to have their first units available in 2002.

The refrigerator-sized units consist of a fuel processor, a fuel cell stack and an inverter to change the power from DC to AC. These units can be stored in the basement or outdoors and will require connections for a fuel gas line (if the unit is powered by natural gas). Some fuel cells will require a drain for excess water, while other fuel-cell designs will use all of the water produced by the fuel cell internally. Waste heat from the fuel cell may be used for hot water production or simply vented to the outdoors.

Currently, the most optimum use for these fuel cells is for residences located a distance away from the distribution lines. These residential fuel cells can also be used as a constant and non-fluctuating supplement to grid power to protect personal electronic equipment. The units will require routine maintenance after 8,000 hours of usage and are designed to last for 15 years. The first models will use natural gas as a fuel and are not yet designed to use the heated water. However, Plug Power, in partnership with German boiler manufacturer Vaillant, is working to make the combined units available for commercial sales.

The final category of fuel cell use is for personal applications. Micro-fuel cells, which produce 1W of power or less, are currently being looked at to power cell phones. Their advantages over batteries are that they last longer, are lighter and can be powered wherever methanol is available. One of the leaders of this technology, New York-based Manhattan Scientifics, recently announced a fuel-cell-powered bicycle and vacuum cleaner. Small-cap tech companies like MS are trying to partner with other companies to bring the products to the market. Again, the attractiveness of these fuel-cell-powered personal items will depend on cost and functionality.

Various fuel-cell types may soon be ready for commercial sales. Fuel-cell trial results and economic feasibility studies will also soon be completed, likely demonstrating the dire need for clean and green electricity.

Helen Vozenilek is a freelance writer and an electrician for the city and county of San Francisco.


The American Heritage Dictionary defines fuel cells as electrochemical cells in which the energy of a reaction between a fuel, such as liquid hydrogen, and an oxidant, such as liquid oxygen, is converted directly and continuously into electrical energy.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to release electrons and produce both heat and water. The only emissions produced by the fuel cells occur when a hydrocarbonated gas, such as natural gas, is used and carbon dioxide is released into the air. Fuel cells produce considerably less emissions than fossil fuel combustion.

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