Since November 2006, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has been publishing a series of short articles in the ASHRAE Journal on fuel cells for distributed generation. These articles are being churned out by engineers at Cambridge, MA based TIAX, LLC, a company focused on rapidly evolving new innovations into commercial technologies.
TIAX has a good reputation for creative problem solving. So, as I read these articles, I expected to be greeted by novel TIAX solutions for the many problems still plaguing fuel cells. Instead, I got the latest incarnation of the same overly-rosy rhetoric that conveniently overlooks all the problems that have kept fuel cells on the fringes of the commercial market for the past 15 years.
These articles broadly describe how fuel cells could fit into a distributed generation (DG) paradigm. DG is the production of electrons via many small generators distributed throughout the power network. Ideally, generators are in close proximity to the point of electron consumption, minimizing transmission distance. DG topography is juxtaposed against our conventional centralized power network where electrons are produced at large, remote power plants and transmitted long distances to their point of use.
Distributed generation is synergistic with alternative energy because most renewable power sources are small in output and amenable to DG distribution topology. For example, electrons generated from a residential solar array are best utilized in that home, minimizing transmission loss penalty.
So far, the ASHRAE articles have covered proton exchange membrane (PEM), solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), and phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFC). The take-home message seems to be there is a fuel cell fit for every application. PEM is ideal for remote hydrogen production; SOFCs will be the workhorse generators for distributed combined heat and power (CHP), and PAFCs will provide low-emission electrons using dirty fuel or when waste heat is not needed.
I wonder if there is a fuel cell out there that will do my dishes.
Completely missing from the ASHRAE articles are any discussions of cost, fuel quality, or implementation. What is our motivation to switch to fuel cells when conventional energy technologies are still less expensive? How are we planning to scrub impurities out of fuels to prevent electrolyte poisoning? Where is the justification for scrapping trillions in capital invested in the grid (and how do we appease those with vested interest in those assets) in favor of this magical fuel-cell-fired DG system?
Methinks TIAX and ASHRAE need to go back to the drawing board. You have to work a little harder than that to wow this blogger!