Fuel Cells
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Fuel Cells

What are fuel cells?

Fuel cells are energy conversion devices that continuously transform the chemical energy of a fuel and an oxidant into electrical energy. This energy conversion process is accomplished by an electrochemical reaction whereby the reactants are consumed, by-product(s) are expelled, and heat may be released or consumed. Fuel cells will continue to generate electricity as long as both fuel and oxidant are available. Pure hydrogen, hydrocarbons, alcohols, and hydrazine are common fuels while pure oxygen and air are conventional oxidants.

Sir William Grove is widely attributed to be the discoverer of the fuel cell. From his experiments in 1839 on the electrolysis of water, Grove reasoned that it should be possible to reverse the process, reacting hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity. Using fuel cells as electricity generation devices dates back only a few decades, when NASA began using fuel cells in the United States' space program. Fuel cells provided power for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. The space shuttle uses fuel cells to provide electricity and water.

How does a fuel cell work?

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Are Fuel Cells available now?

Fuel cells are quickly gaining market ground in availability and product options. There are distributed generation solutions for small scale residential up to large scale commercial needs. The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) website provides a listing of manufacturers. Currently, there are three fuel cell models certified for the California Emerging Renewables Rebate Program.

Are Fuel Cells Economical?

Before proceeding with any Self-Generation project, a site-specific economic analysis should be done. If a good thermal load exists at the site, fuel cells may be an economically viable power generation solution, however, their initial cost will be higher than combustion technologies.

Positive environmental attributes of fuel cells should be considered when analyzing cost-effectiveness. Due to their very low air emissions, fuel cells are typically exempt from air pollution control permit requirements - resulting in thousands of dollars saved annually in air permit fees and emission source test costs.

Under the new PUC Self-Generation Program, fuel cells operating on renewable fuel (landfill or digester gas) with output between 30 kilowatts and 1 Megawatt, and sized at or below customer's annual peak demand are eligible for an incentive of $4500 per kilowatt.

Fuel Cells operating on nonrenewable fuel, of any size up to 1 Megawatt are eligible for an incentive of $2500 per kilowatt. providing that the heat produced by the fuel cell is recovered for beneficial use (Cogeneration).

 

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