Electronic Design

Tomorrow's Winners: Alternative Energy

Fuel Cells Go Back To The Future—Again

With adequate funding, alternative energy will power your laptop and car and lower your home energy bill in the next 10 years.

The energy crisis of the 1970s is a fading memory for aging baby boomers who once looked forward to a future warmed and illuminated by solar collectors and alternative fuels. Two-and-a-half decades of relatively cheap fuels have nearly relegated the quest for energy's holy grail to the history books. But according to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, many of the world's oil fields are already declining. Also, Americans are again feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks as prices for oil and natural gas skyrocket.

Fuel cells and solar energy from photovoltaic (PV) cells promise to slow the consumption of nonrenewable resources. Jumpstarting these technologies, though, requires some healthy funding from the government and private sector. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) candidly say that their budgets are barely enough to keep up with their Japanese and European counterparts.

Glenn Hamer, executive director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, testified before the Congressional Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittees that worldwide solar production in 2003 topped 760 MW, up from 550 MW in 2002. As the U.S. produced just 109 MW, Hamer's 2004 request for an annual $100 million budget for PV research seems modest—less than one day in the war in Iraq.

Hamer says that worldwide PV energy production is doubling nearly every two years and should exceed 1 billion watts this year. The Renewable Energy Policy Project estimates that each megawatt of solar energy produced will support 35.5 jobs over the next 10 years. A solar industry that continues to grow at current rates could produce more than 150,000 jobs with about 40,000 direct jobs by 2020 for a workforce half the size of General Motors. Many of these positions are manufacturing jobs with high value added. Several solar manufacturers are locating their facilities near the Department of Energy's research sites.

The DOE's 2003 PV roadmap put the PV business at about $2 billion in 2001. Yet it suggests that the cost of manufacturing PV products will have to come down for the market to be viable. Improved efficiencies and better mass production of cells will go a long way in lowering costs. Manufacturers need to develop low-cost, high-throughput technologies for high-efficiency thin-film and crystalline-silicon cells.

Conversion efficiency must improve from 7% to 10% for thin film and 12% to 14% for crystalline silicon to 18% to 20% while keeping the cost at less than 50 cents/W for both module types (Fig. 1). The system price paid by the end user, including operating and maintenance costs, is expected to be $3/W ac to $4/W ac in 2010. Total manufacturing costs, or the cost to produce the components in the system, are projected to be 50% to 60% of the price of the installed system.

At $3/W to $4/W, the cost of PVs in 10 years may still be too high to generate affordable electricity for the average home, but not to power portable devices and keep them charged. SunPower's recent PV cell tests out at 20% efficiency—better than the average range of existing cells at 12% to 15% (Fig. 2). This allows a 3-kW output in 17 m2, lowering the installed cost of an entire system.

Since worldwide production of PVs increases tenfold every decade, SunPower president Richard M. Swanson predicts the price of modules to drop by 50% each decade. If he's correct, PVs costing $3/W today could drop to $1.50/W by 2010. A 3-kW system would come in around $4500 for the modules, plus another $4500 for the installation and other miscellaneous costs. With tax credits and rising utility costs, consumers may find this price quite acceptable for offsetting high utility costs.

Another PV-like technology that promises to break the $1.50/W barrier even sooner is crystalline silicon on glass (CSG), which Pacific Solar is developing for rooftop systems. Company research director Martin Green anticipates CSG's manufacturing cost to be $1.25/W in 2005, well below the PV price. Currently, Pacific Solar's costs are about $1.95/W. These rooftop systems especially make sense for large office buildings and plants in sunny climes.

While Long Island, N.Y., isn't necessarily a sunny climate, the Long Island Power Authority and FALA Direct Mail Group in Farmingdale recently completed a 1.01-MW rooftop PV system installed by Power-Light Corp. The 13,424 PowerLight PV panels, with a total array size of 10,270 m2, cost FALA $6.1 million. Over the next 25 years, FALA could save as much as $12 million in energy costs when adjusted by 2.5% per year for inflation. The installation reduces FALA's energy bill by 10%, saving it an estimated 33% on its peak load requirements.

Fuel cells face the same challenge as PVs—obtaining sufficient funding. According to a survey published in the Breakthrough Technologies Institute's Fuel Cells at the Crossroads, respondents believe the energy industry will undergo profound changes over the next few decades, resulting in some form of hydrogen economy. But the U.S. federal government must provide support if it hopes to lead the fuel-cell industry and turn this vision into reality.

In the U.S., private-sector investment in fuel cells peaked at $1.1 billion in 2000 and fell to less than half that in 2002. Also, federal funding grew slowly from a mere $114 million in 1996 to $159 million in 2002. Venture-capital funding averaged $17.6 million annually over the last six years, mainly in the stationary and portable sectors.

While the U.S. is seen as the leader in the stationary and portable sectors and competing for the lead in the mobile sector, the lead is very tenuous. Europe's and Japan's commitment to fuel cells through heavy funding gives European and Japanese companies significant advantages over U.S. companies.

Honda and Toyota are actively pursuing fuel cells for future automobiles. Honda has designed and built its own hydrogen fuel-cell technology (Fig. 3). In a different approach, Toyota's FCHV-5 fuel-cell hybrid vehicle generates electricity from hydrogen derived from Clean Hydrogen Fuel (CHF), using Toyota's original CHF reformer. CHF can be produced from crude oil, natural gas, or coal, and it has a low sulfur content. The FCHV-5 will be useful in areas that lack a hydrogen-supply infrastructure.

Not to be outdone, U.S. companies are researching and producing both concept and real models for testing. DaimlerChrysler showed its concept Jeep Treo in Tokyo last year and delivered 60 fuel-cell-powered Mercedes A-Class cars—the F-Cell—to government fleets in Europe, the U.S., and Singapore. The U.S. Postal Service is testing Ford delivery trucks powered by Ballard fuel cells. Ford also has fuel-cell-powered and fuel-cell/electric hybrids. And, GM is designing and building its own fuel cells for stationary applications and cars and trucks. By 2010, GM will have a commercial version of a GM fuel-cell car available at competitive prices.

What about future jobs in fuel cells? In 2002, the U.S. fuel-cell industry employed approximately 4500 to 5500. The study predicts that by the year 2021, there could be as many as 188,648 or as few as 119,861 jobs, depending on capitalization. Base capitalization, reflecting the status quo or current expectations for market development, might put the job count at 168,189, with 67,276 direct jobs and 100,913 indirect jobs. Over time, employment in the transportation sector could surpass the stationary sector. Many stationary products have already been released, but significant cost reductions will be necessary to penetrate the market.

General Motors' Fuel Cell Development Center is creating 100 or more new research and engineering jobs. The new facility will develop fuel-cell stacks, fuel processors, electrolyzers, and the systems around them into products for both stationary and transportation uses. GM plans on using stationary fuel cells to power parts of the building (see "Dow Chemical, GM See The Future In Fuel Cells," p. 84).

The portable sector is expected to take off more rapidly than the transportation and stationary sectors because products for portable applications, such as long-lasting supplies for portable computers and camcorders, are near commercial viability. Christopher Hebling, director of the Fraunhofer Institute's energy and technology department, says that mass-produced hydrogen-based cells could be cheaper than rechargeable lithium-ion batteries in a few years.

Fraunhofer, which partners with high-tech startups such as German fuel-cell manufacturer Masterflex, is working on direct replacement cells that would fit right into laptop computers, powering them for 10 hours on a single stretch (Fig. 4). Rechargeable metal-hydride containers would hold enough hydrogen for each use, and the water output would be converted into what Hebling calls "damp air."

Getting a competitive price will take some time. "In the beginning of the market entry, the price \[of each hydrogen-based cell\] will be around 3700 Euros. As soon as a sufficient series production starts, the price should drop to around 1000 to 1500 Euros," explained Masterflex spokesman Stefan Schulte. "It is not possible to make a five-year forecast. However, we will produce 50-W fuel cells as well as 100-W and 200-W systems this year."

Two Japanese companies will have non-hydrogen products available toward the end of this year or in 2005. Toshiba expects to commercialize its direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for handheld products in 2005 and for portable PCs by the end of 2004. The 100- by 60- by 30-mm DMFC puts out 1 W for about 20 hours of operation on a single 25-cc fuel cartridge. Hitachi plans to release an AA-size DMFC cell in 2005.

Meanwhile, the generation and storage of hydrogen remains an issue in cutting the costs of fuel cells. "Biomass material-based fuel cells are a better solution than hydrogen power fuel cells since hydrogen is expensive and dangerous to handle," notes Technical Insights analyst Al Hester. "More research should be devoted to ethanol since it is environmentally friendly and based on renewable resources."

According to "Ethanol to Power the Future of Hydrogen Fuel Cells," a report by Technical Insights, conversion of biomass materials like ethanol or methanol into hydrogen is a more cost-efficient way to power fuel cells. Intermetallic compounds could be used beneficially in fuel-cell electrodes to oxidize ethanol.

While this biomass-hydrogen argument may not be settled right away, a half-dozen or more other fuel-cell technologies have varying degrees of viability. As one NREL researcher said, there are as many political or special-interest issues behind technology choices as there are technology issues. But regardless of the issues, the future can't afford to wait another 30 years for alternate energy.

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