When NASA's space shuttles first launched 20 years ago, they carried fuel cells capable of making both electricity and water for astronauts without pollution. Now fuel cell technology offers electricity onsite for a Sierra Nevada brewery, a California wastewater treatment plant, U.S. military bases and cellphone towers in India. Even utility companies have begun using fuel cells to help meet the soaring energy demands of a world tipping the scales at 7 billion people.
Fuel cells can't totally replace fossil fuels or renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, but they can provide onsite electricity almost anywhere without having to plunk down new power plants or transmission lines. Such power sources could revolutionize the electricity-powered dream that began with Thomas Edison, the U.S. innovator who installed the first central power plant for Manhattan's financial district in 1882.
"You don't have transmission, and you're not building central plants; you build it where you need it so that there's smart, green energy all the same time," said Chip Bottone, president and CEO of FuelCell Energy.
The quiet, energy-efficient devices don't pollute because they don't burn any fuel; instead, they create electricity from the chemical reaction between oxygen in the air and hydrogen found in natural gas or biogas. Customers can even recycle the waste heat for use in heating the water supply or other parts of a building.
"It's been around technology-wise for 100 years," Bottone told InnovationNewsDaily. "The real question is how do you apply that technology to commercial applications today at competitive pricing, and that's what our company has done."
Around the world
Rising demand for clean, flexible energy has created huge opportunities for FuelCell Energy. The Connecticut-based company has recently grown by 50 percent each year by courting customers in the United States and South Korea, as well as through expansions in Europe and Southeast Asia.
The company has 181 megawatts of fuel cell power installed or backlogged for installation — enough to power almost 145,000 U.S. homes. Its focus on supplying large-scale fuel cells of 1 megawatt or greater has won over customers such as the $2 billion POSCO Power in South Korea and California's PG&E. Such utility giants make up about half of FuelCell Energy's business.
The other half of the company's customers come from smaller businesses. Some, such as the Sierra Nevada brewery or Gills Onions, can harness the biogas waste products from beverage or food processing to create their own onsite power. Wastewater treatment plants that must typically get rid of methane biogas can transform it from a cost into a moneymaker.
A small but growing share of FuelCell Energy's business also comes from the U.S. military. It has fuel cells installed at the U.S. Marine base in Camp Pendleton, California, as well as the U.S. Navy's missile range facility in Hawaii and a submarine base in Connecticut.
Fuel cells everywhere
All of that probably makes FuelCell Energy the fuel cell leader in terms of power supplied, said Romesh Kumar, a chemical engineer and manager of the fuel cell technology program at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. He added that U.S. companies have also sold many more fuel cells for smaller uses.
Fuel cells have helped recharge the radios of U.S. soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan. Fleets of fuel-cell-powered forklifts run around the clock in U.S. warehouses. India has used fuel cells to power cellphone towers in regions lacking access to the power grid, and U.S. telecommunication firms want to use fuel cells as backup power sources for when the power goes out.
"The industry is maturing very well, particularly in finding high-value applications," Kumar explained. "In some places, fuel cells are marketed as uninterruptible power sources at computer data centers."
Fuel cells even powered the lighting outside the 2010 Academy Awards ceremony, the 2011 Golden Globe Awards, the 2011 Screen Actors Guild Awards and the 2011 Grammy Awards. And, in a poignant touch, it powered a mobile lighting station for reporters during the last space shuttle mission.
Finding the right price
Fuel cells use natural gas almost twice as efficiently as natural-gas turbine power plants, but remain more expensive in terms of power supplied than turbine power plants, Kumar said. Still, a federal tax credit of 30 percent for fuel cell customers helps make the technology more competitive, if not fully competitive.
A focus on deploying fuel cell power on a large scale could bring the cost down, according to FuelCell Energy.
"With some incentives today, we are competitive with certain parts of the grid; Asia, Europe, and the East Coast and West Coast of the United States," Bottone said. "Our vision for the company is that we're going to produce products that can deliver power at grid parity without incentives."
Besides installing fuel cells, the company also runs everything from its own control center so that customers don't have to worry about day-to-day operations. It estimates a worldwide market for both fuel cell technology and service contracts worth $12 billion over the next five years — and that's just for customers needing 1 megawatt or more of power.
"We want to be part of that, but we don't want to get it all," Bottone said. "If we just get a small piece of it, we're going to have a fairly large business."