Fuel Cells


Cost Reduction
The capital cost for fuel cells is one factor contributing to the limited market penetration of fuel cell technology. For fuel cells to compete with contemporary power generation technology, both the capital and installed cost (the cost per kilowatt required to purchase and install a power system) must come down. In the stationary power market, fuel cells could become competitive if they reach an installed cost of $1,500 or less per kilowatt. Currently, the cost is in the $4,000+ range per kilowatt. In the automobile sector, a competitive cost is on the order of $60 - $100 per kilowatt, a much more stringent criterion.

The high capital cost (on a $/kW basis) today has led to a significant effort focused cost reduction. Specific areas in which cost reductions are being investigated include:

  • Material reduction and exploration of lower-cost material alternatives

  • Reducing the complexity of an integrated system

  • Minimizing temperature constraints (which add complexity and cost to the system)

  • Streamlining manufacturing processes

  • Increasing power density (footprint reduction)

  • Scaling up production to gain the benefit of economies of scale (volume) through increased market penetration.

System Integration
Two key systems integration issues for the success of fuel cells are: (1) the development and demonstration of integrated systems in grid connected and transportation applications and (2) development and demonstration of hybrid systems for achieving very high efficiencies.

Integrated fuel cell systems must be developed and demonstrated in order to minimize of the cost of electricity. For most applications, this requires that the fundamental processes be integrated into an efficient plant when capital costs are kept as low as possible. Specific systems and system integration RD&D that is occurring today includes: (1) power inverters, (2) power conditioners, (3) hybrid system designs, (4) hybrid system integration and testing, (5) operation and maintenance issues, and (6) robust controls for integrated systems.

Although fuel cells have been shown to be able to provide electricity at high efficiencies and with exceptional environmental sensitivity, the long-term performance and reliability of certain fuel cell systems has not been significantly demonstrated to the market. Research, development and demonstration of fuel cell systems that will enhance the endurance and reliability of fuel cells are currently underway. The specific RD&D issues in this category include: (1) endurance and longevity, (2) thermal cycling capability, (3) durability in installed environment (seismic, transportation effects, etc.), and (4) grid connection performance.

Non-Technical Barriers
Over the next several years, RD&D will enable the widespread utilization of fuel cells for distributed power generation. However, there are other (non-technical) issues and barriers that must be addressed to enable this widespread use of fuel cells (as well as other distributed generation technologies). These issues include, but are not limited to:

  • How will codes and standards for permitting be determined and ultimately enforced?

  • What siting requirements and processes will be required for fuel cells?

  • What emissions regulations (if any) will fuel cells be subject to comply with?

  • How will competition transition charges (CTC) be assessed?

  • How will distribution charges be assessed?

  • Can insurance for these installations be adequately supported and obtained?

  • What interconnect standards will be set for distributed resources in various utility service territories?

  • What depreciation schedules will be allowed?

Innovative Technical Development
Fuel cells will benefit from breakthroughs in technology to become competitive with other advanced power generation technologies. These technological breakthroughs will likely occur either directly through support of innovative concepts, or as spin-offs to the thought process and work entailed in innovative concepts. These innovative concepts must be well grounded in science, but can differ from the traditional fuel cell RD&D in that they investigate the balance of plant, controls, materials, and other aspects of fuel cell technology that have not been previously investigated. Innovative and fruitful concepts might be found in these areas:

    1. New fuel cell types

    2. Contaminant tolerance (CO, sulfur)

    3. New fuel cell materials (electrolyte, catalyst, anode and cathode)

    4. New balance of plant (BOP) concepts (reformers, gas clean-up, water handling, etc.).

Public Understanding
The most challenging hurdle for fuel cells is the mystery of the technology. While the general public is familiar with combustion engines, fuel cells are difficult to understand. The high performance (high efficiency, few moving parts, virtually zero emission of criteria pollutants) is difficult to believe let alone accept. A box that hums has little appeal in contrast to a gas turbine of equivalent power. Decision makers, policy makers, and staffs of decision and policy makers are slow, as a result, to embrace the technology. The track record is building, however, and an increasing acceptance for fuel cells to be a key component to achieve (1) clean air in urban air sheds, and (2) mitigate climate change.