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Fancy Having Your Own Power Plant? "Fuel Cell Micro-Cogeneration is Market-Ready"

SolidPower’s BlueGen fuel cell unit.

More than 1,000 fuel cell micro-cogeneration units have been installed in homes and business in ten countries over the last several years by the ene.field project. Its successor, the PACE project, aims at bringing costs further down, although manufacturers and users say the technology is market-ready.

“I thought it would be nice to have my own power plant,” says Jochen Steneberg, a participant in the ene.field project field trial. A demonstration project for fuel cell micro-cogeneration, the ene.field project was funded to the tune of €52.5 million, with matching contributions from industry and the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), a public private partnership supporting research, technological development and demonstration activities in fuel cell and hydrogen energy technologies in Europe.

Steneberg is one of 3500 households and businesses across Europe that are currently using fuel cell micro-cogeneration for their heating, hot water and electricity supply. The product is transforming Europeans like Steneberg into active energy ‘prosumers’ (producers-consumers) who can sell excess electricity back to the grid, creating a decentralized energy system with a reduced carbon footprint – and lower energy bills.

The fuel cell works by using a single fuel (natural gas, hydrogen, LPG) to generate electricity and heat. In systems fueled by natural gas, the natural gas is reformed into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which reacts with oxygen in the fuel cell to produce electricity and heat. Currently fueled by gas from the grid, it is hoped that the “fuel flexible” technology will be progressively fueled by renewable energy sources, such as hydrogen and renewable gas, converting a home fuel cell into a renewable energy technology.

Products include a range of fuel cell technologies and system sizes, provided by ten different manufacturers (Ballard, Bosch, Ceres Power, Elcore, Hexis, RBZ, SenerTec, SOLIDpower, Vaillant, Viessmann).

An additional €90 million shared between European industry and the EU will go into the successor project PACE, aiming at bringing unit costs down sufficiently to mainstream the technology, and establishing Europe as a global leader in fuel cell micro-cogeneration. By 2021, PACE aims at installing at least 2,500 units in Europe manufactured by the project partners BDR Thermea, Bosch, SOLIDPower and Viessman. It is estimated that manufacturing volumes upwards of 500 units / year will lower the cost of units by around 30-40%, and the PACE project is aiming at manufacturing in the order of 10,000 units per year post 2020.

Japan’s Ene-farm program, in which government and manufacturers joined forces to increase volumes and subsequently lower costs, saw the installation of 200,000 units by the end of 2016, and the Japanese government is aiming at 5.3 million units by 2030. In 2009 the cost per unit was around €24,000, while in 2015 it had decreased to approximately €10,000.

European markets

To date the most advanced European market is in Germany, with more than 1500 units installed. Following an earlier German federal project, Callux, the German government put in place the grant support scheme, KfW433, to encourage early market uptake. Grants come in the range of €5,700-€28,000, with €10,000 offered for a 1 kilowatt-electric (kWe) system. Already 1,100 applications have been submitted since the kick-off of the programme in August 2016.

Support for fuel cell micro-cogeneration in other countries, including Belgium, France, and the UK, is through feed-in premiums, feed-in tariffs, and white certificates/green certificates. Depending on the level of support from national schemes, estimates from UK low-carbon consultancy Element Energy indicate that the European market for fuel cell micro-cogeneration could grow to around 25 GW of installed electrical capacity by 2030 (i.e. 25 million units).

As noted in the European Commission’s Heating and Cooling Strategy, space heating in buildings can account for more than 80% of total heat demand in colder climates. Almost half of the EU’s buildings have individual boilers installed before 1992, with efficiencies of 60% or less. Based on an assessment from the European Heating Industry Association (EHI) less than 15% of the boiler stock are efficient condensing boilers, and currently just 1% of buildings are heated by heat pumps and micro-cogeneration technologies.

As the fuel cell micro-cogeneration units are powered by gas from the grid and produce electricity, the combination of low gas prices and high electricity prices (‘spark spread’) also provides favorable market conditions for fuel cell micro-cogeneration. For the average household in Germany or the Netherlands, this means that energy bill savings in the range of €600 – €1000 are achievable using the product. Currently, fuel cell micro-cogeneration unit costs range between €14,000 and €25,000 per kWe, however ramping up manufacturing through the PACE project aims at lowering upfront capital costs by 30-40%.

A 2015 study commissioned by the FCH JU compared total cost of ownership of fuel cell micro-cogeneration and other technologies, finding that “with sufficient reduction of capital cost, it can offer the most attractive economic value proposition, in terms of total cost of ownership, as measured by total annual energy costs”. Increasing manufacturing volumes is the key to cost reduction; with cost reductions of 30% possible with manufacturing 500 units per year, and 60% at 100,000 units per year.

Source: Advancing Europe’s energy systems: Stationary fuel cells in distributed generation.

Along with the high upfront cost, finding the routes to market for fuel cell micro-cogeneration remains challenging. Heat installers, 600 of whom were trained to install the units as part of the ene.field project, proved effective. Although utilities, many of whom are facing financial challenges in Europe’s energy transition, were initially hesitant, with the success of the roll-out, new commercial partnerships are underway.

“Now that utilities can see that fuel cell micro-cogeneration works – customers are happy, and the product is reliable – we have a number of business partnerships with utilities in development,” says Olivier Bucheli, Chief Business Development Officer of the SOLIDpower Group.  One utility-led business model is a leasing arrangement, whereby the utility owns the installed unit, and the householder benefits from low electricity prices and free hot water. “From volumes of 500 units upwards, this business model is interesting for utilities,” says Bucheli.

System benefits

By generating heat and electricity near the point of consumption, fuel cell micro-cogeneration reduces the stress on grid electricity at times of peak demand, by contributing to the production of electricity, i.e to power electric heat pumps and charge electric vehicles, and by supporting intermittent renewables. And higher market penetration of fuel cell micro-cogeneration could bring multiple benefits for Europe’s future decentralized energy system, according to a recent report from Imperial College London. The study analyzed the impact of fuel cell micro-cogeneration on the capacity and operation of the electricity grid, along with the impact on CO2 emissions and gas consumption.

The electricity system benefits are significant. Adding fuel cell micro-cogeneration to the European energy mix could generate a gross reduction in infrastructure and operating costs of more than €6,000 for every kilowatt of installed capacity up to 2050. System benefits at distribution level can amount to €1,600 – €2,600 per installed kWe, mainly by deferring the investment cost at the low voltage level.

Regarding CO2 emissions, fuel cell micro-cogeneration can achieve reductions in the range of 370 – 1,100 kg CO2 per year for each kWe of installed capacity, although the extent of emissions reduction is system-specific, depending on the share of fossil fuels in the generation mix. Average carbon intensity of electricity generation across Member States was around 2,207 kg CO2 per year for each kWe.

Policy push

Along with national support schemes and large-scale projects such as ene.field and PACE, policy support will be a decisive factor in the take-up of fuel cell micro-cogeneration. Many attributes of the product are emphasized in Europe’s climate and energy goals – energy efficiency, renewable energy, decarbonisation, consumer empowerment, job creation and innovation – but existing policies tend to address heat and power separately, although some policy progress is evident in the EU’s Heating and Cooling Strategy, first launched in 2015.

To take one example, Article 7 in the Energy Efficiency Directive, currently under discussion as part of the European Commission’s Clean Energy for all Europeans policy package, requires energy companies to achieve yearly energy savings of 1.5% of annual sales to final consumers. However, the focus is on energy reduction as the end-user level (final energy) rather than on primary energy. As well as advocating for primary energy use to be taken into account, industry association COGEN Europe says that renewable energy, as well as energy efficiency, should be included in the energy savings targets.

In addition, although European policy is nominally supportive of ‘prosumers’, electricity self-production and self-consumption are often penalised through disproportionately high grid connection and grid tariffs compared to real grid use. Financial, as well as administrative barriers to grid connection or support schemes at the national level persist and represent a major barrier to the large-scale roll-out of fuel cell micro-cogeneration.

Despite these challenges, the industry mood is upbeat. “Following the successful completion of ene.field, major European manufacturers, supported by the FCH JU at the EU level and key European national governments, are now committed to bringing the technology closer to mass market by increasing scale and achieving further product cost reductions. PACE will enable manufacturers to establish fuel cell micro-cogeneration as a standard technology”, said Hans Korteweg, Managing Director of COGEN Europe, the Coordinator of the PACE and ene.field projects.

Original Post

Clare Taylor's picture

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 14, 2017

Another way to use fossil fuel? How did that get on a clean energy website?

The problem with home fuel cells is that they are not clean unless they run on hydrogen, and re-plumbing cities to distribute (leaky & explosive) hydrogen will cost just as much as plumbing the cities for hot-water-based district heat systems, which are compatible with carbon-free energy sources which produce no pollution.

We know how to make hot water very affordably, but hydrogen is still very expensive when made sustainably.

Bad idea; just say no to home fuel cells, especially those that burn fossil fuel.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 15, 2017

I suppose rural electrification is a reasonable application for these, especially when run on ammonia fuel. Ammonia is easily storable as a liquid in low pressure tanks and is amenable to truck delivery like propane, but emits no pollution or CO2 when burned (just water and nitrogen).

Ammonia (from sustainable electricity, water, and air) can’t compete in price with fossil gas from frac’ing. But propane is more valuable, and more likely to be in range of achievable ammonia prices. In many locations, ammonia from fossil gas is already competitive with propane and diesel, so when combined with CS&S, this can be a non-CO2 emitting energy pathway.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on December 15, 2017

In the natural gas reformation, the gases produced are carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

I’m no expert on reformation and fuel cells, but that statement is at least misleading. The gases initially produced in reformation are a mix of H2, CO, and CO2. The CO will ultimately be oxidized to CO2. I don’t know whether the BlueGen make direct use of the CO fraction for power, or use only the H2. But I know that there are SOFCs that run on CO.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on December 15, 2017

Hydrogen or ammonia fuel cells would indeed avoid any CO2 emissions. They might also be more efficient. And based on projections for the cost of automotive PEM fuel cells, maybe an order of magnitude cheaper.

Nonetheless, micro-CHP is one step in the right direction. It’s better than straight combustion of natural gas for hot water and home heating. Not so much better as to obviate the value of good insulation, passive solar gain, and heat recovery ventilation, but the “free” electricity does have value. The key point, however, is that it’s an approach that can be implemented now, without waiting for a hydrogen or ammonia fuel distribution infrastructure to be put in place.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on December 15, 2017

I need to partially retract my previous comment about CO vs. CO2 in reformation of natural gas. I forgot about the other gas that’s present in SOFC operation: high temperature steam.

When the concentration of H2 is low (because it’s consumed quickly after being formed) and the concentration of H2O vapor is high, the CO that is an intermediate of the reformation process is quickly oxidized by the water vapor to yield CO2 and H2. Even in an SOFC fueled by CO, the gas involved in the electrochemical reaction is H2 that was produced internally by steam oxidation of CO.

So Michael’s statement was fully correct.

Now had we been talking molten carbonate FCs, the story is a little different …

I know, picky picky! Sorry about that.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 15, 2017

Michael, technically steam reforming does produce carbon monoxide:
CH4 + H2O (+ heat) → CO + 3H2

In commercial hydrogen production, the CO is combined with water in a second water-gas shift reaction to improve purity:
CO + H2O → CO2 + H2

Making hydrogen from natural gas is a dirty business, any way you slice it. ~3% of natural gas feedstock escapes into the atmosphere during production, and methane is 25x more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Also, steam reforming is endothermic – energy must be supplied both to boil water and pressurize methane. And that energy, nearly always, comes from burning natural gas.

Clare Taylor's picture
Clare Taylor on December 18, 2017

Thanks for your comments! Michael, I did not mean to imply that the carbon monoxide reacts with the oxygen to produce electricity and heat. However, my understanding is that carbon monoxide is a by-product in the reforming of natural gas into hydrogen

Nathan, yes it is another way to use natural gas OR renewable gas, it is a fuel-flexible technology. I am a big fan of district heating – see – but renewables, decarbonisation and efficiency can be delivered across different technologies and energy vectors (e.g. electricity, heat, gas), so as highlighted in your second comment, it’s a question of what application is most suited to a particular situation.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 18, 2017

In the natural gas reformation, the gases produced are carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

This is not quite complete.  The partial-oxidation step of the reforming process converts CH4 into largely CO and H2 with some CO2 added.  To run a PEM FC requires a second step, the water-gas shift.  CO is reacted with H2O to make CO2 and H2.  SOFCs are typically auto-reforming and MCFCs require CO2 recycle to the cathode.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 18, 2017

Even in an SOFC fueled by CO, the gas involved in the electrochemical reaction is H2 that was produced internally by steam oxidation of CO.

In a SOFC running on CO and air, there IS no hydrogen present save in the humidity on the cathode side.  At the cathode, O2 is broken down to O– ions.  The electrolyte carries O– ions to the anode where they give up their electrons and are oxidized to CO2 by the fuel.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 18, 2017

Ammonia is quite suitable as a fuel for combustion engines.

Ammonia can also be cracked back into N2 + 3 H2.  The N2 is not a problem for any PEM FCs that I’ve heard of (many membranes are not tolerant of CO, though), so the cracking product gas can probably be used directly in a PEM FC.  NH3 also works in SOFCs which are tolerant of high hydrogen concentrations.  SOFCs are often auto-reforming if the fuels are clean.

Of course, NH3 is not suitable for MCFCs because there is no CO2 stream to recycle to the cathode to feed the CO2 + 1/2 O2 + 2 e- -> CO3– step.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on December 18, 2017

Yes, ammonia can be used in fuel cells. It can be consumed directly in the high-temperature solid oxide fuel cells which are being sold for fossil gas applications.

For the low temp automotive type PEM fuel cells, it is a little more complicated, as a cracker is needed to break the ammonia down into hydrogen and nitrogen (and ~1% residual ammonia), then a scrubber is needed to remove the residual ammonia (to ppm levels).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 20, 2017

renewables, decarbonisation and efficiency can be delivered across different technologies and energy vectors…

Clare, here you misuse standard physics terminology:

• renewables are technologies, they aren’t “delivered across” them
• efficiency is not a resource, it’s a ratio. It can’t be “delivered” anywhere.
• decarbonization, as an abstract noun, also can’t be “delivered” anywhere.
• energy is not a vector, it’s a scalar (otherwise, a rotating wheel would break the first law of thermodynamics).

Words matter.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 20, 2017

Emission or capture of CO2 is an issue outside of the SOFC itself; it would be part of the balance of plant.

One detail is that the SOFC, by its nature, does not mix the fuel-side gases with nitrogen (though nitrogen might be part of the fuel, e.g. NH3).  This makes carbon capture distinctly easier and cheaper.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 20, 2017

“Balance of plant” means to me that the emission or capture of the CO2 is part of the SOFC plant operations

It’s attributable to the fuel chosen to feed the SOFC, IF and ONLY IF the design calls for emission rather than capture and sequestration.

this CO2 is, therefore, attributed to the SOFC technology.

Carbon can be captured and sequestered from almost any fossil-fired energy system.  The only issue is the capital and energy (efficiency) costs of doing so.  SOFCs reduce that cost substantially.  So does the Allam cycle.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on December 25, 2017

You are a poet of words, but not of current carbon capture technology and finance.

I’m not a poet of those things, but a student.

Other readers (and you of course) should be told that carbon emissions is the only current commercial practice for fossil-fired energy systems.

Other readers (and you of course) should be told that the Great Plains Synfuels Plant has been in operation since 1984, and has been selling its CO2 byproduct to the operators of the Weyburn and Midale oil fields in Canada since 2000.

In other news, Net Power is just months from completing its pilot Allam cycle plant which will capture all CO2 of combustion as a normal part of its operation, not an add-on.  That’s going to slash the cost of CO2 and multiply the number of customers for it.

Carbon emission capture and sequestration is only in the dreams of poets like you.

It’s been an on-going thing for 17 years already.

It looks like it could be the answer to other problems elsewhere.  The Groningen gas field in the Netherlands is facing limits on withdrawals due to subsidence causing earthquakes.  The obvious solution is replacement of the extracted gas with some other fluid.  CO2 taken from Allam-cycle power plants operating at the field itself is a natural solution.  CO2 takes up considerably more volume per carbon molecule than methane, so there could be a net reversal of subsidence if the CO2 is re-injected into the gas field.

Rather than dealing with CO2, it’s usually easiest to just not generate it in the first place.  However, we are far from powerless in dealing with it, especially with technologies more sophisticated than burning fossil fuel in a stream of air and trying to deal with the products.

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