In January, Technology Review published a short article announcing GE’s demonstration of a gasified-coal-burning solid oxide fuel cell. Coal-fired fuel cells are not new. For example, NewScientist.com posted an article in August 2005 covering Harvard’s attempt at a low-temperature coal fuel cell.
However, GE’s major breakthrough is a prototype fuel cell stack with potential energy conversion efficiency of over 50% that could be manufactured for about $800 per kilowatt. This dollar per power achievement puts GE within reach of $500/kW, the threshold where fuel cells become economically competitive against conventional coal-fired power plants.
Coal plus fuel cells resonate well for many experts because the US has several-hundred years of coal reserves, and fuel cells can rescue more energy from this fuel supply than conventional coal-fired plants. In other words, coal fuel cells can release America from foreign oil dependency for electricity generation while providing more electrons per pound of coal than conventional technologies.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you already know that I don’t like fuel cells, and I don’t like coal. However, I like filthy combustion and reliance on foreign petroleum even less. I therefore endorse GE’s $800/kW coal-fired fuel cell as a great leap forward.
If the US is not yet ready to make a substantial investment in renewable energy, it would at least be sensible to embrace coal-fired fuel cells. While blatantly side-stepping the glaring pollution and greenhouse gas problems presented by coal gasification, we can at least disentangle ourselves from the need to exert military dominance over the Middle East to protect our fossil fuel supply.