Here’s what homebuilders need to know about fuel cells
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Backup power is becoming increasingly necessary during this time of grid instability, and thanks to advancements in technology, increasingly efficient.
Take the fuel cell. Not only can this product pitch in during outages, but it can also provide consistent power full time.
Unlike traditional standby generators, the fuel cell doesn’t combust fuel, it converts it into electricity. That means quieter, cleaner operation, and near zero-emission backup power.
“The energy efficiency is two to three times that of a conventional generator,” says Dr. Yanhai Du, professor at the College of Aeronautics and Engineering at Kent State University. Dr. Du heads up the university’s Energy and Sustainability Research Team, exploring advancements in fuel cell technology.
The fuel cell is hardly new, dating back to the 1830s, but there’s renewed interest in it as many builders are considering alternatives to household generators, particularly the diesel-based variety, in efforts to decarbonize.
Diesel generators have long dominated the market as the go-to solution for emergency backup power. While reliable, these units present serious air quality concerns. Diesel combustion produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides. That’s why propane has emerged as a cleaner fuel source for backup power. Combined with fuel cell technology, propane offers a promising path forward.
While hydrogen is the future fuel for this technology, it is not available for domestic use nor is it easy to transport or store. Propane is available and transportable.
“Propane is everywhere,” Dr. Du says. “It’s portable and easy to handle.” That means if fuel cells go mainstream, they’ll have an abundant and readily available fuel source.
Here’s what homebuilders need to know about fuel cells as an innovative solution:
- They consume less fuel: Fuel cells convert gas into electricity through an electrochemical process, which means it does more with less propane. Ed Lieberman, vice president of sales at Upstart Power, maker of solid oxide fuel cell power systems, estimates its 1.25kW residential system can power the average 2,000-square-foot home for 30kW hours with a third of the amount of propane a conventional generator would use. That means a 250-gallon propane tank can last nearly 50 days, as opposed to 15. “When you use fuel, you’ll sip it, not drink it,” Lieberman says.
- They are compatible with batteries and solar: Many homeowners can only use their generators as a last resort, preferring to lean on renewable energy like solar. A hybrid energy system, which uses a combination of clean power sources and standby power, provides resilience with minimal fuel consumption: Solar panels supply a home’s electrical demand while storing surplus electricity in a battery. During a blackout, or at night, the battery can serve as the primary power source. When it drains down, the fuel cell kicks on — a backup to the backup power. “If you need long-term resilience, that’s when you’re going to use fuel,” Lieberman says. The advantage of propane appliances like water heaters, furnaces, clothes dryers and cooktops is that they reduce electrical demand on the system, helping a battery last even longer.
- They are compatible with CHP: While a fuel cell can keep the lights on during a blackout, it also has to the potential to supply space and water heating. A combined heat and power system (CHP) can capture heat energy generated by the fuel cell to help maintain home comfort, Dr. Du says.
- They are quiet: Internal combustion engines can be noisy. When the power goes out in a neighborhood, the rattling and hum of generators can be a nuisance. Fuel cells, on the other hand, are almost whisper quiet. Lieberman compares their sound profile to that of a refrigerator. The silent operation “makes better neighbors,” he says.
- They require near zero maintenance: Internal combustion engines have a lot of moving parts, which means you’ll occasionally need to change spark plugs and oil to keep them operational. Fuel cells are minimal hassle. Plus, the appliances can be wall-mounted to keep them above water during a flood.
- They are already here: Fuel cell technology is the technology of the future, and it’s available now. There have been several high-profile commercial cases, such as Microsoft’s 3MW hydrogen fuel cell backup power plant, but fuel cells are catching on residentially, as well, Lieberman explains. Upstart Power’s residential units will be available this year. “We’ve already had back orders for thousands of units,” he says.
Dr. Du likens fuel cells to solar panels. “Twenty years ago, solar panels were a luxurious thing,” he says. What was once prohibitively expensive for many is now fairly common. He estimates fuel cells will have a similar trajectory, with widespread adoption of the technology when costs go down.