Last week’s workshop in Frankfurt on fuel cell-based micro-CHP units focussed attention on efforts in Germany and across Europe to emulate the success of the technology in Japan. Europe has been waiting patiently for a mass roll-out of micro-CHP units aimed at providing heat and power for individual homes since the technology was first proposed well more than a decade ago. Initially, units based on or internal combustion units or Stirling engines were expected to lead the way, but a third technology – fuel cells – eventually took off. However, Japan has been by far the most successful host country.

Last December’s Fuel Cell Industry Review from international consultancy E4tech reported the numbers for Japan – the annual deployment of units rose from 40,000 to nearly 50,000 during 2016, with a total of 190,000 expected to be installed by the end of the year. Primarily based on PEM technology and from two manufacturers, Panasonic and Toshiba, units are typically sized at 700-750 W electrical.

The key to the success of home-sized fuel cell CHP units is the Japanese government’s Ene-Farm programme, which supports units from all systems providers. And, while the 190,000 units dwarfs any other fuel cell market, Japan is working towards an ambitious target to achieve 1.4 million units by 2020; and more than 5 million by 2030, according the E4tech review. Big numbers indeed.

Meanwhile, Europe’s Pathway to Competitive European micro-CHP market (PACE) project is supporting the installation of nearly 3000 micro-CHP units of around 1 kW electrical output, from four European producers. The project follows an earlier programme, ene.field, which aims to support up to 1000 units by the autumn of this year.

Germany is at the forefront of fuel cell micro-CHP development in Europe, with its own support programme for units up to 5 kW in size and more than 1,000 units already in place, according to the organisers of the recent Frankfurt workshop. One of the next steps on the path to mass commercialization is to industrialize production.

Speaking at the Frankfurt event, ene.field coordinator Fiona Riddoch said that while fuel cell micro-CHP units can match other heating technologies for operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions, capital costs need to be reduced for the technology to appeal to customers. Both Germany and Europe as whole have some way to go to match Japan’s performance.