(The following article is part of Climate Solutions' Earth Day 2000 series|
on rapid development of clean energy sources, a central theme of the
millennial Earth Day. Climate Solutions will send installments weekly
through April 22, when Earth Day takes place. All publishing rights granted
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FUEL CELLS: GOOD CHEMISTRY FOR THE CLIMATE
By Patrick Mazza
Invented in 1839 before the internal combustion engine, the fuel cell is the
leading contender to take its place in 21st century cars, and will also
become a mainstay of a new decentralized electrical network.
Fuel cells resemble both a battery and an engine. Like batteries, they
provide electricity from chemical reactions without combustion or moving
parts. But they never need recharging because like an engine they run off a
The fuel source is hydrogen, most abundant element in the universe.
Combining with oxygen, the reaction pumps out electricity, heat and pure
water. Most fuel cells use fossil fuels, breaking hydrogen from carbon. So
fuel cells release some climate-altering greenhouse gases, but less than if
the fuel is burned. A March 2000 study by David Suzuki Foundation and the
Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development shows that fuel cells cut
natural gas emissions 70%, but reduce gasoline emissions only 20%.
Ultimately fuel cells will be powered by greenhouse-emission-free pure
hydrogen, which a Ford-U.S. Energy Department study showed can actually be
stored more safely than gasoline. A company called Energy Conversion Devices
is working on an even safer solid-form hydrogen.
Fuel cells can be scaled from postage-stamp size to utility power plant.
Several companies plan to market home systems around the size of a major
appliance. Today a couple of hundred 200-kilowatt fuel cells are part of the
power supply at institutional sites ranging from a New York City police
station to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Tomorrow they will be everywhere. Fuel
cells "are on the leading edge of a tidal wave of change that promises to
scale down electric generators and distribute them as broadly as the home
computer," notes Bonneville Power Administration chief Judi Johansen.
Mass production economies are expected to dramatically drop prices in a few
years. Leaving out the vehicle market, sales are expected to grow 25-fold
from 1999's $40 million to over $10 billion by 2010, Allied Business
Intelligence projects. Says David Walker, president of fuel cell maker DCH
Technology, "...what was once far off, is now a market reality."
GE's Plug Power will begin selling home cells in 2001 in New Jersey for
$7,500-$10,000, and aims to bring that below $4,000 by 2003. At that price,
about the same as a heat pump, electricity would be 7-8¢/kilowatt hour, very
competitive with grid power in many regions. GE plans to market
business-scale systems by 2002. In January investors suddenly aware of fuel
cell prospects tripled Plug Power's stock to $79 in one day.
Auto industry developments are also moving at a frenzied pace. Recently
considered too expensive and heavy for vehicles, fuel cell technology has
been making unanticipated breakthroughs.
"I believe fuel cells will be a significant part of our industry in the
not-too-distant future," Ford Motor Chair William Clay Ford Jr. says.
Within 4-5 years, fuel cell vehicles will reach Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and
Nissan showrooms. Companies hope to sell at only a 10% premium over
conventional cars. Daimler will premier an $18,000 fuel cell version of its
Mercedes A in 2004, aims to sell 100,000 fuel cell vehicles by 2005, and
projects that 25% of the 2020 global auto market will be fuel cell-powered.
General Motors, working with Toyota on fuel cell engines, plans to include
them in 10% of cars it sells in 2010. Volkswagen, BMW, even Southern States
Power, have fuel cell vehicles in the works.
Fuel cells will realize their full potential as a technology for fighting
global warming when they are fed not with fossil fuel but by pure hydrogen.
The National Renewable Energy Lab recently patented a technique to produce
hydrogen from algae. The gas could also be supplied by large-scale renewable
power installations generating electricity that cracks hydrogen from water.
Iceland is already exploring the potential. An Icelandic consortium in 1999
signed a deal with Daimler and Shell aimed at developing the world's first
fossil-fuel-free hydrogen economy, with fuel cells at the center.
Coming over the next few years to the next generation of cars and the new
distributed electricity network, the good chemistry of fuel cells is certain
to draw positive reactions all around.
Patrick Mazza is staff writer-researcher for Climate Solutions. These
articles are excerpted from Climate Solutions' upcoming report,
Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution: How the Northwest Can Lead.
Climate Solutions is co-convening the Symposium on Clean Energy: The Next
High Tech Revolution in Seattle, April 3-5. For more information contact
Climate Solutions, 610 E.4th Ave., Olympia, WA 98501, U.S.A. (360) 352-1763
or firstname.lastname@example.org .