Could five million tiny, domestic-scale ‘power stations’ based on fuel cell technology replace several full-size gas-fired power stations and generate a significant proportion of UK power needs – in the next 15 years?

A collection of Europe-based developers of ‘smart power units’ believes so, and cite progress already made with fuel cell micro-CHP technology in Japan and elsewhere as back-up for their claims.

The transfer of some power generation from utilities into the hands of millions of customers would deliver a set of material benefits for the UK economy – according to a new report from Ecuity Consulting on behalf of the six developers: Baxi, Ceramic Fuel Cells, Ceres Power, IE-CHP, Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells and Viessmann.
Fuelcell Micro CHP

The inherently high efficiency of fuel cell CHP units means that users would cut their energy bills by 20% or more; the UK would burn about 7% less gas; and carbon dioxide emissions savings would equal those resulting from building 11 carbon capture and storage plants, says Ecuity. In addition, around 5 GW of new flexible and distributed generating capacity would be added to the electricity system.

All that’s needed is a series of policy interventions to include a grant scheme for early installations and continuing feed-in tariff support for fuel cell smart power units. With 22 million UK homes and premises suitable for micro-CHP, the installation of 5 million units is achievable, adds Ecuity. In 2012 Japan set a goal of powering 2 million homes by micro-CHP by 2020 and now plans to roll out fuel cell systems to more than 5 million homes by 2030. Japan’s Ene-Farm capital subsidy scheme for micro-CHP delivered 20,000 new micro-CHP installations during 2012 alone.

Meanwhile, Germany has established a highly-supportive policy and subsidy structure for fuel cells and micro-CHP and aims to install 72,000 units per year by 2020. South Korea is racing ahead with larger fuel cell installations, including the world’s largest fuel cell park in Daegu City, with a generating capacity of over 11 MW, and the US state of California has seen fuel cells begin to dominate its highly-successful Self Generation Incentive Program.

Europe has waited a long time for micro-CHP technology to take off, and attention has shifted from earlier units based on Stirling and internal combustion engines to those based on fuel cells, mainly because of their higher electrical efficiencies. Could it be that fuel cell smart power systems lead a radical shift from remote, inefficient power-only stations to a system incorporating millions of distributed units?