Because fuel cells create energy electrochemically, and do not burn fuel, they are fundamentally more efficient than combustion systems. Fuel cell systems today achieve 40-50 percent fuel-to-electricity efficiency. When a fuel cell is sited near the point of energy use, as in some stationary applications, the waste heat can also be captured for cogeneration, which is also referred to as combined heat and power. In large-scale building systems this cogeneration can reduce facility energy costs by 20-40 percent. Using this waste heat can bring the system efficiency up over 85 percent, and in some real world cases higher than 90 percent. This compares favourably to the relatively low efficiency of the electric grid, which is about 30 percent.
Reliability and High Quality Power
Highly reliable power is essential to many businesses, as well as residential communities. It is estimated that U.S. businesses lose $29 billion annually from computer failures due to power outages. Data centers, banks, hospitals, grocery stores and telecommunications companies all rely on constant power to maintain operations. These buildings require power that is available 99.9999% of the time, and in many areas the electrical grid does not meet this requirement. Fuel cells can generate power independent of the grid, providing crucial backup power to a grid-connected building that can eliminate the fear of losing power with a reliability of 99.95%. Fuel cells can also be configured to be a building’s primary source of power.
Many banks, data centers, and other electricity intense buildings require high-quality power. Fuel cells provide a constant power output that does not have the same voltage surges and sags as the electric grid. Smooth power output is also important for fuel cell-powered materials handling vehicles such as forklifts, as batteries lose voltage as they deplete, making it more difficult to do the same amount of work over the course of a shift. Fuel cells also have a conditioner that ensures high quality power output.
Most fuel cells run on hydrogen and all will continue to generate power as long as fuel is supplied. The source of the hydrogen does not matter in most fuel cells. A fuel cell system can include a fuel reformer that generates hydrogen from a diverse range of sources including fossil fuels such as natural gas, propane and coal, alcohol fuels such as methanol and ethanol, and from hydrogen compounds containing no carbon such as ammonia or borohydride. In addition, biomass, methane, landfill gas or anaerobic digester gas from wastewater treatment plants may be used as fuel sources, and are considered renewable in several states and countries. Hydrogen produced via water electrolysis provides the cleanest fuel pathway, and can be achieved through conventional grid power, nuclear power, solar or wind.
Hydrogen can be produced from domestic resources, eliminating the need to import foreign oil. Fuel cells aid critical communications networks, providing crucial connections and continuous power during weather events such as hurricanes and snow storms that can cripple the grid. Fuel cells have proven themselves during these violent weather events over the past few years, providing reliable backup power to schools, hospitals, and grocery stores, all of which deliver crucial goods and services to communities. Fuel cells are also rugged, and can be sited in harsh terrain, extreme climates, and rural areas without infrastructure.
Ruggedness and Durability
Whether in rough terrain or extreme climates, fuel cells can be sited wherever power is needed. Uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units currently backup cell towers in remote locations, and portable fuel cells have proved themselves alongside the U.S. military in theater, providing soldiers critical power with low heat and noise signatures in extreme environments.
Fuel cells are modular, and can be scaled up depending on the power needs of a facility. Larger fuel cells can be linked together to achieve multi-megawatt outputs, while smaller ones can satisfy specific power needs at residential, telecommunications, or small commercial facilities.
Because they use no combustion or moving parts, fuel cells are much quieter than many incumbent technologies. This allows them to be sited in places such as parks or residential areas. The Sheraton hotel in San Diego, has four fuel cells installed next to their tennis courts! As the chart below illustrates, most conversation takes place around a noise level of 60 dBa, which is approximately the noise level measured at 1 meter for all fuel cell units between 1-250 kW regardless of application. When integrated into a system, air pumps and/or fans are typically needed, which are usually the only source of noise on a fuel cell power unit or vehicle.
Fuel cells are complementary, not competitors, with other electricity generation technologies, particularly renewable ones. Some power systems utilize a fuel cell either integrated or co-located with on-site solar PV, wind turbines, and/or batteries. In these systems, the fuel cell often provides a stable, base load power supply to support the intermittent renewable systems. Some warehouses today use hybrid forklifts, which have an on-board fuel cell that is used to recharge the battery. Telecom backup stations have employed hybrid renewable energy systems for several years, installing fuel cells alongside solar, wind, and batteries to harden a site’s power and ensure continuous operation.
Lightweight and Long Lasting
Fuel cells are being developed for portable electronic devices such as laptops and cell phones. Fuel cells provide a much longer operating life than a battery, and since fuel cells have a higher energy density, they are lighter than an equivalent battery system. Fuel cells do not require recharging; as long as fuel is present, the system will continuously generate electricity. For portable fuel cells liquid, solid, or gaseous fuel in a reusable canister could be replaced in a moment. In portable units
U.S. military forces are assessing the value of portable fuel cells in the field and have deployed demonstration units with ground forces in Afghanistan to test their readiness. Soldiers need a lot of power, but they already carry so much weight, and batteries are heavy. Fuel cells are lighter and can operate 10 times longer than conventional batteries, and have the added benefits of lower heat and noise signatures.
No other energy generating technology has the combination of benefits that fuel cells offer.
- Low-to-Zero Emissions
- High Efficiency
- Fuel Flexibility
- Energy Security
- Ruggedness and Durability
- Quiet Operation
- Technology Compatibility
- Lightweight and Long-Lasting