Fuel cells provide clean power by eliminating the need for oil and by producing carbon-free emissions at the point of operation. Their versatility means they are suited to a range of portable and stationary applications, for both prime and backup power. Across the world, fuel cells are increasingly being used in a variety of different industries and will become commonplace in everything we do from powering the cars we drive and the places we work, to providing power for our homes and even our mobile phones.
Hydrogen fuel cell office installation at UPS Systems
Fuel cells are growing in popularity, not just for their clean credentials, but also because they can play a part in power systems where their fuel is created by sustainable means.
For those willing to invest, fuel cells offer an exciting alternative to traditional generators for creating power, plus they provide organizations with a multitude of additional benefits. Fuel cells are more efficient and reliable than conventional generators, more compact than batteries, and can provide power where the mains grid is inaccessible.
UK FUEL CELL ADOPTION
Whilst many academics and businesses still see fuel cells as a technology for the future, the truth is they are a commercially viable option and are in use now. Table 1 on page 62 shows the solutions currently offered by UPS Systems in the UK, demonstrating the flexibility of a fuel cell for a range of diverse applications.
Table 1. Stationary and portable fuel cell applications from UPS Systems
PRIME POWER APPLICATIONS
Fuel cell adoption is steadily increasing throughout the UK. The first two fuel cells we installed were for AC standby power; the first was in our offices in Hungerford and the second in Winton Capital Management in Kensington, West London (to protect its IT infrastructure against momentary or complete power failure).
Since then, our expertise has grown in both standby and prime power installations. With every project we have undertaken, we have managed the whole process from advising on the initial specification through to monitoring the equipment once the installation is complete.
FAVOURING HYBRID INSTALLATIONS
In the UK there is an increasing trend for hybrid installations, where fuel cells are integrated with renewable energy sources to create the hydrogen. Such hybrid installations can make fuel cells ‘green’ as well as ‘clean’. Hybrid installations allow buildings to be completely self-sufficient in their energy provision as the power is generated on-site without the need for any mains grid power.
Fuel cell interest is increasing across the UK. In the last year they have become an important part of our business and the number of fuel cell related enquiries continues to rise.
We have seen that UK businesses are realising fuel cells are commercially viable, and many organizations are already reaping the benefits from their fuel cell installations. We have recently been in consultation with several companies interested in using fuel cell technology to power their data centres.
Even though fuel cells have numerous benefits, we are increasingly hearing three main reasons why companies are interested in adopting this technology over traditional generators and mains grid power:
- First, fuel cells offer a ‘clean air’ alternative to businesses looking to reduce their carbon emissions and dependence on oil. Their promise of carbon-free emissions is becoming an increasingly compelling argument as pressure rises from the government and lobbying groups to consider the environmental impact.
- Second, for standby power applications diesel generators are often unsuitable because of their size. Fuel cells are compact, meaning they can easily be housed indoors, eliminating the need for external storage. For organizations based in city centres where office space is charged at a premium, fuel cell solutions are becoming increasingly popular.
- Finally, sometimes it can be difficult and costly to connect to the mains grid. In remote locations, fuel cells can supply prime power to equipment making the whole unit independent and self-sufficient. Fuel cells become even more attractive when renewable energy sources are unsuitable, as they become the only real viable option.
ADOPTION ACROSS THE GLOBE
According to fuelcells.org (an activity from the Breakthrough Technologies Institute), there are currently 914 stationary fuel cell projects within 38 countries; 32 of these fuel cell projects are located in the UK.
To understand how the UK fuel cell landscape has evolved in recent years, it is useful to compare it with how the rest of the world is advancing. We can consider the steps that other countries have taken to encourage fuel cell adoption and see how we can learn from their examples.
Japan is renowned for its technology innovations and it takes fuel cell development very seriously. It has 186 installations and owns two-thirds of all fuel cell patents. Japan has fuel cells in use across the country powering everything they do for business, home life and personal possessions. Japan fully understands the importance of fuel cells and has embraced this clean technology.
Japan’s government currently invests over $300 million each year for fuel cell development to help fulfil the country’s future power needs. By 2020, Japan aims to see fuel cell technology in a quarter of Japanese households (ten million homes), something they are confident of achieving.
Germany is the fuel cell market leader in Europe with 117 installations. The Federal Government views fuel cells as important to the country’s long-term economic growth and survival, and it has pledged to invest $1.3 billion over the next ten years for research, development and demonstration projects. Investment here is not only to create clean technology for the benefit of the environment, it is also for the creation of sustainable jobs and maintaining the country’s competitive position.
Germany’s main strength is its scientific and industrial expertise. Its automotive industry is the cornerstone in its economy, employing over 770,000 people. To protect this industry and maintain its reputation within engineering, Germany aims to increase its investment in fuel cells. Failure to do so could result in their car manufacturing moving abroad, costing thousands of jobs and damaging the economy.
California boasts 78 stationary fuel cell installations across the state. This achievement has been possible because the state shares a common vision and believes that fuel cells are a breakthrough innovation and worthwhile investment. Their government’s objective is to establish a hydrogen economy to support the integration of fuel cells across the state.
Several partnerships work together to facilitate the creation of a hydrogen economy the largest of which is the California Hydrogen Highway Network. They work to support the development of fuel cell technology to fulfil their aims of reducing their dependency on foreign oil, reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and improving the air quality.
The driving force behind the Californian hydrogen economy is the Federal Government, which is spending $130 million over the next three years on research and development. Furthermore, to make fuel cells more financially attainable and accessible for organizations, there is a 30% tax credit available when purchasing a fuel cell to help offset the initial capital costs. The California Public Utility Commission’s Self-Generation Program offers users incentive reimbursements of up to $4500/kWh, which ensures that fuel cells are more cost-effective than traditional energy sources see COSPP March/April 2009.
A PROMISING FUTURE
In the UK, while many companies are keen to adopt fuel cell technology into their businesses, high capital costs can be a short-term barrier to adoption of this innovative technology. Unlike in the US, Germany and Japan, there are no financial incentives available to UK businesses, so we expect widespread adoption to be a more gradual process.
Japan, Germany and the US have demonstrated how fuel cells can help to protect the environment, meet international initiatives for cleaner emissions, stimulate economic growth, and create new jobs. To see the same results, the UK government needs to recognize the strategic importance of this technology and invest in fuel cells to make it financially attractive for UK businesses and help accelerate adoption.
The UK needs to follow the example of these pioneering countries if we are to secure our future through sustainable energy. Renewable energy technologies are of paramount importance to the UK’s future economic growth and sustainability. If we can share the common vision of creating a hydrogen economy, we can join other leading regions of the world that depend on fuel cells to provide a cleaner and more reliable source of power.
Tom Sperrey is managing director, UPS Systems, Hungerford, UK
Case study: Severn Trent Water
Our most recent assignment was to supply 20 methanol fuel cells for Severn Trent Water. They will use the equipment to monitor the water flow and pollution levels along a 73 mile (117 km) aqueduct which serves the Elan Valley Reservoir and which in turn supplies water to people living in the West Midlands.
Fuel cells were chosen for supplying prime power because the aqueduct is remote from the National Grid therefore connecting it to mains power was too expensive. Other renewable energy sources (wind, solar) were unsuitable because of their impact on the surrounding environment.
Each fuel cell uses a 28 litre canister of methanol which is sufficient to power the equipment 24 hours a day, for a minimum of 300 days.
Case study: npower renewables
npower renewables uses fuel cell technology to power telemetry equipment. With 14 onshore wind farms across the UK, they continue to expand their commitment to sustainable energy by testing new sites to determine suitable locations for building further wind farms.
We supplied two methanol fuel cells, to be used with a solar panel, to power a portable anemometry mast. This mast will test wind speeds at heights of up to 200 metres.
Case study: Environmental Energy Technology Centre (EETC)
Yorkshire Forward commissioned the EETC to prove that hydrogen is a viable source of energy, which is more reliable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. The centre is designed to be an iconic carbon-neutral building, and features a Hydrogen Mini-Grid System (HMGS) to supply power to the building. The HMGS uses a wind turbine to produce over 500 MWh of electricity each year.
EETC fuel cell installation
We worked with consultants TNEI to install three 12 kW fuel cells that use a store of hydrogen, so that during periods of low wind speed the fuel cells power the building. Any excess power is fed back into the national grid.
Case study: Residential installations
Japan has already started the process of rolling out fuel cells into private homes; 2200 Japanese homeowners currently use fuel cells to provide heat and power. Using natural gas, the units are no bigger than a suitcase and are generally located indoors next to the hot water tank. This development is a welcome addition, saving homeowners on average $770 in electricity and gas bills each year. Initial data suggest the units create a third less pollution than conventional power.
Case study: T-Systems Computer Centre
T-Systems in Munich installed the world’s first fuel cell to supply computers in their server room with combined power and cooling. Their 250 kW biogas fuel cell produces 1.4 GWh of power each year to make them independent of the mains grid. This ensures a reliable supply of electricity is maintained at all times.
Case study: California State University
The California State University is America’s leading academic institution taking action to combat global warming. Its installation of a 1 MW natural gas unit makes it the largest fuel cell powered university in the world.
The fuel cell generates prime power for the campus with the heat emissions used to warm the building. Excess heat is pumped into its adjacent greenhouse to help enhance photosynthesis and boost plant growth by 1040%.
Overall, the fuel cell helps the university reach its targets for greater energy independence, capital growth, cost management and increasing its use of green power.