Steady but ‘fragile’ progress for stationary fuel cells

The use of fuel cells for stationary heat and power is growing, particularly in Asia, yet it’s hard to get away from the feeling that the overall progress of this highly efficient and exceptionally clean technology continues to fall way behind what is possible.

By the end of next month, nearly 50,000 stationary fuels, with an electricity generating capacity of just over 200 MW, will have been installed around the world during the year, up from 40,000 units and 150 MW in 2013 and six times the figures from five years ago. This is according to the new Fuel Cell Industry Review 2015 from the UK-based consultancy E4tech.

Significantly increased sales in most markets made 2015 a good year from the global fuel cell industry, yet its steady progress since 2010 is ‘still a fragile thing’ with sales in every major market still supported by financial incentives of one sort or another, says E4tech.

Adoption of the technology is still hampered by its relative novelty, concerns about the use of hydrogen, and costs ” hence the continued reliance on support programmes. Yet E4tech is optimistic about growth in 2016: ‘a few hundred MW of stationary power is easy to forecast’, subject to those programmes continuing.

Fuel cells are also used in vehicles and for small power, eg for laptop computers. But, looking only at stationary power applications, most action is in Japan and Korea.

Japan is home to the successful Ene-Farm programme to support installation of domestic-scale micro-CHP fuel cell systems ” around 140,000 systems now operate and more than 40,000 new systems will have been installed this year. The units are primarily PEM (proton exchange membrane) devices of around 0.75 kWe in size, promoted to householders by Japan’s gas industry. Meanwhile, Korea continues to push larger-scale, mostly MCFC (molten carbonate fuel cell) units, singly or in groups to make systems up to tens of megawatts in size. Korea’s largest supplier, POSCO, will eventually take over from imports of US technology.

Outside Asia, three US technology suppliers of larger-scale MCFC units are doing fairly well in those states that explicitly support fuel cells; while Europe lags behind, save for its micro-CHP sector, most notably in Germany.

E4tech says it is cautiously positive about growth in fuel cell numbers for 2016, but is less sure if any of the manufacturers will be actually making a profit.


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