Renewable Energy and Fuel Cells ? the drive is on

by Allen Gibson

Slowly, but surely, the infrastructure, research, and the evidence necessary to make alternative energy sources economical and practical is being put in place. Already, many states have discovered that renewable energy initiatives, despite initial fears of being too expensive, have in fact either paid for themselves or even generated savings to the utilities involved.

And the markets are noticing, particularly with the recent surge in oil prices. Suddenly, renewable energy stocks are hot. The new WilderHill Clean Energy Index has already jumped 12 percent since it starting trading on AMEX in August, which officials say is uncommon for a new index.

And while the high oil price has spurred investment in drilling, as Alan Greenspan recently suggested it would, it may also be spurring investment into alternative fuels that have a greater chance now of attracting customers and competing in the marketplace. In this article, we?ll look at several examples of where those customers are coming from, and what technical innovations are beginning to make fuel cells a more viable energy source. Innovations that were fueled by the last big round of investor interest in the sector, which poured over a billion dollars into fuel cell companies in the late ?90s, which resulted in lowering the price of fuel cells by fifty percent. Much more work, however, remains.

DaimlerChrysler has committed to putting a hundred fuel cell vehicles on the road this year. It has 33 ?Citaro? fuel cell buses here, and in Europe, Japan, Australia and Singapore. And it will soon add a vehicle at LAX, which is building a hydrogen ?gas station? as part of California?s push for a network of such stations across the state.

In spite of its vehicle rollout, however, Chrysler engineers are still saying that fuel cells are too expensive to be practical for cars, mainly due to the cost of platinum. According to Chrysler, it requires about $4,000 worth of platinum to build a fuel cell powerful enough for a car.

Both Chrysler and GM suggest that the need for platinum will be reduced by several factors over the next few years due to their research, but obviously neither company has considered Astris Energi, who have been in the game for two decades, and who recently improved their Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC) so that it uses no platinum! Stacks of their cells have been successfully deployed at a major industrial site in Ontario, Canada, and more are being built at their plant in Europe. The cells are also being used to run a prototype golf cart.

Astris?s technology directly descends from the space program, where AFCs were the choice cell because of their higher fuel efficiency. Now, the company says it has also overcome the other major drawback of today?s more common Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) cells, which is running in cold weather. Chrysler is working to solve that issue with the DOE and DuPont in an attempt to improve extreme temperature performance in the thin proton-passing filter at the heart of a PEM system.

Many other companies are racing to do the same thing. SRI spin-off PolyFuel has produced a proton membrane capable of working within a broader range of temperatures and producing more power output through using nanoengineering to align the membrane?s molecules. PolyFuel has so far only succeeded in the lab, but says the results are so promising that a test engine could be built within 2-5 years.

Forecast demand for fuel cells is expected to surpass $30 billion annually worldwide by 2011, representing a projected compound average annual growth rate of 62%! Who will own that market is anyone?s guess, as companies and countries around the world strive to become the dominant name in fuel cells.

Helping drive the transformation ? governments Whichever fuel cell technology ends up in global use, there is no doubt that the push towards alternative, less-polluting energy sources is picking up global momentum, partly due to government policies. Countries around the world are announcing new initiatives.

In January of this year, for example, Germany made new laws that guarantee solar-power producers a fixed return on the electricity they produce. A guaranteed minimum price is paid for power from renewable energies if it is fed into the general grid. Investors have the security that they can sell their electricity at a fixed rate for 20 years. The new law has resulted in such a demand for solar systems ? not only for domestic homes but large megawatt plants ? that the industry struggled this summer to keep up with demand for materials. German companies have started buying up producers in Sweden and other countries to take advantage of the demand.

And, in Colorado, the citizens? Is the German model about to catch on?

After its state legislature failed three times to create a framework for mandating renewable energy supplies, the citizens of Colorado have taken matters into their own hands, with a proposal, known as Amendment 37, which would require Colorado retail electric providers to produce 10 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2015, up from less than 2 percent today.

While solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydroelectricity, and hydrogen fuel cells would all count, the amendment seems to favor solar power, providing a potential boon for solar energy companies like Kyocera, one of the world's largest suppliers of solar energy products.

The amendment would mandate utilities pay a portion of the capital costs for solar equipment by offering a rebate of $2.00 per watt up to $200,000 for customers that install solar systems on their homes. If customers produce surplus electricity then utilities would also have to buy back this power at retail rather than wholesale rates.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a state committee has draft recommendations that would boost renewable energy production to 10 percent of the state?s power by 2020. In Nevada, where the utility companies first claimed their costs would rise by $300 million, they have since reported to that, in fact, the renewable energy initiative has so far saved them $15 million!

Texas, who faced similar resistance to its 1999 initiatives to develop wind power, has since become one of the country?s biggest wind power producers. And in California, renewable energy has become cheap enough that the utilities have not had to tap public funds for its generation!

Plus the military. On Cape Cod , the Coast Guard's third-largest air station runs on power from a stack of fuel cells which protect the base from a sometimes-erratic electrical supply. The stack puts out 80 percent of the electricity used by a dozen buildings at the air station, including the radar tower. It uses technology that processes natural gas inside the stack into hydrogen. Heat from the stack also warms 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of hot water a day, enough to supply the barracks and cafeteria.

Just this month Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide unveiled a high performance, fuel cell off-road vehicle at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. The "Quantum Alternative Mobility Vehicle? provides significant benefits to troops by providing almost silent operations, faster acceleration than a gas or diesel engine, and a convenient electrical supply to power their gear in the field.

With advantages like those, is there any doubt that fuel cells will be driving our HumVees as soon as practicable? Especially since lack of acceleration has been identified as a real source of danger by the troops in Iraq ?

Allen R. Gibson has over twenty-five years of experience in media and corporate communications. He has been a reporter, television producer, and marketing communications consultant for public companies in both the US and Canada.