Domestic fuel cells: the power within
Why buy electricity from the grid when you can produce it affordably yourself - and heat your home at the same time? And reduce your environmental footprint? And possibly even save money? Why indeed. Residential fuel cell units could deliver these benefits to millions of homes in the EU, and preparations to ramp up their production are under way.
A few definitions, to start with, although you may already be aware that ‘FC mCHP’ stands for ‘fuel cell micro-CHP’, and that, in turn, CHP is short for ‘combined heat and power’. The technology is designed to produce heat and electricity on a scale suitable for individual homes.
Of all the solutions available FC based mCHP are the ones with more potential and most promising at this scale. This is due to the high electrical efficiencies that are achievable with this technology. More specifically, FC mCHP units, as a general rule, are designed for flats or houses of 200m2 or less, says Mirela Atanasiu of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU). They are used instead of or as a complement to the more traditional boiler, generating electricity in addition to heat and hot water.
While first units are already on the market in Europe, the technology has yet to be rolled out on a larger scale. Trials have enabled manufacturers to refine their products, and a follow-on project is paving the way for mass production. Currently there are in the order of 1,500-2,000 units installed throughout Europe.
Fuel cells produce electricity and heat from hydrogen, which mCHP units typically generate by internally transforming natural gas from the grid, Atanasiu explains. And the potential is compelling. Compared to a state-of-the-art condensing boiler and grid power supply, FC mCHP units can slash carbon dioxide emissions by at least 30 % and in some cases by up to 80 %, Atanasiu notes.
The extent of the reduction depends on the energy mix of the grid. Besides, the units don’t produce nitrogen or sulphur dioxides at all, she adds, and they are completely silent.
Homes fitted with this technology are also expected to need less primary energy (because fuel cells are more efficient), and they can feed any surplus energy they produce back into the grid. Potentially, the technology could reduce customers' energy bills by up to € 1 000 per year, says Atanasiu. “Any house that is connected to natural gas can be equipped with this type of solution,” she notes.
...and happy customers
Trials across 9 EU countries were launched in 2012 by the FCH JU funded project ene.field, which has deployed just over one thousand residential installations. Due to end in October 2017, the project – which builds on the outcomes of a predecessor project implemented in Germany – is already reporting encouraging results, according to Atanasiu.
Households participating in the trials receive a unit for three years, she says. “Of course, people are a bit reluctant at the beginning as they are not familiar with the technology,” she observes. “But once they have it in their homes, they are very happy with it.” In fact, she notes, many have asked to keep the appliance.
Not that every single installation was a complete success, Atanasiu concedes. While the general conclusion from the trials is positive, she notes, the tests also enabled the participating manufacturers to gain experience, and refine their product technology and business models.
Four of these manufacturers, along with several other partners, have now joined forces in PACE, a five-year project launched in June 2016 to take the technology closer to mass commercialisation. Like ene.field, this endeavour is backed by the FCH JU, a European public-private partnership dedicated to fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. The JU is a joint effort between private stakeholders (industry, research, and academia) and the European Union, currently funded through the Horizon 2020 programme, Atanasiu explains.
The key aims of PACE include installing 2 650 units with real customers, enabling manufacturers to scale up production, and boosting the durability of the fuel cells at the core of the units. These should also enable the partners to reduce the cost of their units by at least 30 %, which Atanasiu expects to be achievable simply by moving from currently manual production towards mass manufacturing.
“FC-mCHP technology is clean, compact and robust, it offers you energy independence, and it might reduce your bill,” she says. And while the units are still pricey, they are likely to become more affordable very soon.
At this stage, financial incentives are also important if the FC mCHP technology is to be brought within the reach of the average household, Atanasiu adds. They were central to the technology’s success in Japan, where it is already well established, she notes. Within the EU an incentive was launched at the end of 2016 to help fuel cell micro-CHP become established in Germany. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy intends that the scheme realises fuel cell micro-CHP sales in the region of 60,000-70,000 units a year in Germany. Other countries such as the UK have in place a feed-in-tariff scheme for micro generation technologies including FC mCHP. These support schemes are already helping to make an economical case for FC mCHP today.