Slow-But-Sure Helps Win the Fuel-Cell Race

Two recent fuel-cell installations provide good examples of the continued interest the technology is drawing from both businesses and government—despite its cost. One partially and the other entirely funded by the government, both projects illustrate the ongoing importance of public backing to further fuel-cell development.

12/01/2003


Two recent fuel-cell installations provide good examples of the continued interest the technology is drawing from both businesses and government—despite its cost. One partially and the other entirely funded by the government, both projects illustrate the ongoing importance of public backing to further fuel-cell development.

The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts recently announced purchase of a 250-kW unit, to be delivered in late 2004. The agency processes approximately 530 million gallons of wastewater daily, and will use recovered biogas and biomass to power the new fuel cell. The unit was sold through an alliance created by Caterpillar Inc. and FuelCell Energy Inc. to develop and distribute fuel cell technology.

FuelCell worked with another partner, the distributed generation subsidiary of energy company PPL Inc., to sell two 250-kW plants to Zoot Enterprises, a Bozeman, Mont.-based financial services company. Zoot will use the natural gas-fired units to power its headquarters building and support future needs of the surrounding office campus it is developing. The $3.8 million project received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

However, the need for government subsidies may be waning. Another manufacturer, Latham, N.Y.-based Plug Power, has announced plans to market a fuel cell as a backup power source designed specifically for the telecom industry at a cost that will not require government assistance. According to a recent MSNBC story, the company anticipates volume sales will allow it to meet the margins it requires for profitability.

Government researchers are also doing their part to support eventual commercial independence for fuel-cell technology. In one such effort, researchers at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology have launched a program to develop test procedures and rating methodologies that will allow buyers to compare features and functionality across different manufacturers' offerings. Scientists are studying how changing electrical and heating demands, outside temperatures, humidity and power systems affect various models. Draft procedures will be submitted for review to an independent standards committee, with membership drawn from private industry and academia.





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