Fuel cells and the UK

In December 2004 a research project funded by the DTI and led by Eoin Lees, former Chief Executive of the Energy Saving Trust, examined the prospects for hydrogen in the UK.6 Its final report came to the following conclusions:

'The UK's priorities with regard to hydrogen were unclear making them hard to address for the purpose of achieving maximum overall benefit. Hydrogen energy support was provided by several initiatives in the UK but a dedicated programme was not in place. . . The UK had no clear means to engage in international initiatives'. This is a fair summary of the UK's current position.

In 2004 the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Angila summarized stakeholder attitudes to fuel cells, especially identifying barriers to progress with the technology.

The key conclusion of the research was that 'insufficient governmental support has been given to enable fuel cells to develop properly as a credible alternative energy technology'.7 This refers not only to regulatory matters like the New Electricity Trading Arrangement (NETA) which particularly penalizes renewables and small generators, but also the paucity of financial support through subsidy or tax concessions. Stakeholders identified the high costs of development of the technology as a main barrier to bringing it to commercial viability. It is the familiar story that fuel cells do not offer adequate short term returns when valued against conventional fossil-based energy. Government support for demonstration projects in both static and mobile applications is vital if fuel cells are to become marketable.

Another problem was that fuel cells are still considered to be an innovative and untried technology that have still to prove their worth as an alternative power source. Added to this is the inertia within the energy industry due mainly to the vested interests of the main fossil-fuel-based generators.

Within the renewable energy community there is debate as to whether fuel cells are appropriate if it takes electricity via water electrolysis to produce hydrogen to power a fuel cell which produces electricity. Would it not be better to use direct electricity from PVs, wind, etc., for static applications? The virtue of the fuel cell is that it guarantees continuity of supply. Increasingly sophisticated electronic devices are highly sensitive to micro-second disruptions of supply (power outages) and where this is a factor fuel cells can already be cost-effective.

There is also the problem that, at the present rate of installation, it will be a considerable time before renewables generate enough surplus power to create reserves of hydrogen that will ensure that the fuel cell is a carbon free technology.

It was recognized by stakeholders that, in the long term, fuel cells will be the major power source for transport. In the medium term it was considered that static cells would predominate, especially if the Government's alleged support for distributed generation results in legislative and financial support for this alternative infrastructure. A strategy paper of 2004 from the regulator Ofgem called 'Distributed generation - the way forward' gives weight to this argument. It sets out the ways in which small scale renewables can be integrated into the distribution network. Others are convinced that transport will lead the way. The three main conclusions of the research were:

• Stationary fuel cells offer 'a significant way forward towards sustainable energy'. But, there are still problems associated with the carbon emissions involved in the production of hydrogen. There are also concerns about the costs involved in creating a hydrogen infrastructure.

• The UK Government has not given adequate support to the development of fuel cell technology including storage systems. Most participants in the research considered that the Government was not convinced about the inevitability of the hydrogen economy in general and fuel cells in particular.

• Thirdly, the lack of demonstration models in the UK is undermining the development of the technology. More demonstrations at varying scales of output, supported by Government subsidy, would demonstrate its commitment to what most nations consider to be the future for energy. Financial support for the integration of fuel cell CHP into new housing would provide an ideal demonstration opportunity, especially if integrated with other forms of renewable energy.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the transition to a hydrogen-based energy infrastructure will be rural communities in developing countries who could never hope to be connected to a grid supply. Access to energy is the main factor which divides the rich from the poor throughout the world. A cheap fuel cell powered by hydrogen electrolysed from PV, solar-electric or small-scale hydroelectricity could be the ultimate answer to this unacceptable inequality.

There is little doubt that we are approaching the threshold of the hydrogen-based economy. Ultimately hydrogen should be available 'on tap' through a piped network. In the meantime reforming natural gas, petrol, propane and other hydrocarbons to produce hydrogen would still result in massive reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and pollutants like oxides of sulphur and nitrogen. The domestic scale fuel cells about to be marketed will have built-in processing units to reform hydrocarbon fuels and the whole system will occupy about the same space as a central heating boiler.

One of the stumbling blocks to the widespread adoption of fuel cells is the fact that hydrogen has to be 'liberated' from water or hydrocarbon fuels. In the case of water the process employs an electrolyser which is effectively a fuel cell in reverse. Standard electrolysers use platinum as the catalyst on both the hydrogen and oxygen electrodes to split water into its constituents of hydrogen and oxygen. Significant advances in the chemistry of electrolysers has been claimed by ITM Power plc, which has substituted nickel as the hydrogen electrode. This significantly reduces the cost. These economies will also apply to fuel cells.8

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