Will Fuel Cells Power the Future?


Fuel cells consist of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte that allows positively charged hydrogen ions to move between the two sides of the cell. In doing so, these ions convert chemical energy into electricity. And the only bi-product is water.

Last week I was offered an up-close look at fuel cell technology at San Diego Gas & Electric’s facility when the utility announced that it intends to use GenCell G5rx hydrogen fuel cell generators for auxiliary power in three of its 136 distribution substations. 27 more will be installed over the next three years.

Gil Shavit, chairman of GenCell, explained that substations are typically supported by lead-acid batteries with an 8-hour life. During prolonged outages, SDG&E typically rolls out generators to substations, but the GenCell technology promises to recharge batteries until the grid comes back online. Each platform is 8 feet by 9 feet and is fueled by standard cylinders of industrial-grade hydrogen.

I watched first-hand as the utility simulated an outage. The fuel cell switched on seamlessly. It silently began providing voltage stability. Whereas traditional gasoline and diesel generators are typically 30% to 40% efficient in their conversion of fuel energy into mechanical energy, Shavit explained that fuel cells can achieve 52% efficiency. And unlike the utility’s diesel backup systems, the G5 technology emits only water.

Fuel cells have come a long way. In 1838, William Robert Grove, a Welsh lawyer turned scientist, developed an improved wet-cell battery when he found a way to create a constant current flow between electrodes to generate about 12 amps of current at about 1.8 volts.

More than a century later, NASA space programs found value in their remarkable energy to weight ratio and used fuel cell technology to generate power for satellites and space capsules. Since then, fuel cells have been used in a variety of other applications such as primary and backup power for commercial, industrial, and residential buildings as well as to power vehicles.

In the past few years, fuel cells have not only proven themselves as efficient and effective they have become an economical alternative to traditional energy storage technologies. Navigant Research reports that today, “The market for stationary fuel cells is transitioning toward maturity and wider adoption, buoyed by improving economics, government support, and growing demand for resilient, dispatchable power.” The research indicates that annual installed stationary fuel cell capacity will grow worldwide from 262.6 MW in 2016 to 3,069.5 MW in 2025.

Demonstrating their faith in fuel cell technology, automakers GM and Honda announced January 31st that they are collaborating to jointly manufacture hydrogen fuel cells. They plan to begin mass production by 2020 at GM’s Brownstown, Michigan facility with a combined investment of $85 million. Dan Nicholson, VP of global propulsion systems at General Motors said at a press conference announcing the joint venture that “we can safely say that today’s announcement officially marks the arrival of fuel cells.”

Are fuel cells a technology that your organization has considered?  We’re curious about the diverse applications you anticipate as costs fall and efficiencies rise. DE_bug_web

  • Greg Kallio.

    In quoting the overall efficiency of fuel cell systems, one should include the conversion efficiency associated with hydrogen production. Hydrogen may be produced by reforming a hydrocarbon such as methane or by electrolysis of water; in both cases, the overall efficiency of the fuel cell system will be much lower, probably less than 30%. Furthermore, reforming produces CO2.

  • C Douglas S.

    Application: Residential stand-alone? Vehicle fuel cell capacity & info?

  • Jonathan McClelland.

    Toyota also has a fuel cell vehicle that is being marketed in select areas of California where there is hydrogen refueling available. It’s called the Mirai, fyi.
    It’s a very promising technology for transportation, and integrated with other systems for either back up power or to augment supply when loads exceed what’s available from other sources. Currently, (no pun intended), most applications source the hydrogen from fossil fuels due to their high hydrogen content, but it’s certainly feasible to create hydrogen from water with electrolysis of water. I look forward to a time when that’s an off the shelf possibility for small scale applications…hopefully before my lead acid battery backup needs to be replaced.

    • Absolutely. We look forward to that time as well. Thank you for sharing the additional information!


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