Dave Sutula of GAMA
If you are like me, you're impatiently waiting to get
your hands on a fuel cell and throw the switch, freeing yourself
from the hassle of power outages and huge electric bills.
Problem is, you can't find one. It's 2003 and
residential fuel cells are reportedly a long way from commercial
success. Why? What's keeping America from going gridless
with the same passion they're going wireless?
Three reasons already receive a lot of attention: fuel cell
costs that are way too high for the ordinary homeowner, stiff
barriers to interconnection with the power grid, and a lack
of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. Fuel cell companies and
governments around the world are pouring tremendous resources
into research and development, studies, and market transformation
initiatives to solve these problems. But this focus is missing
some basic barriers that, without immediate attention, will
prevent the most technologically advanced, expertly designed,
amply supported fuel cell product from ever being installed
on a scale that will secure anything but a tiny slice of its
vast market potential.
Codes and Standards
One of the final steps in installing any major home appliance,
new construction, or retrofit, is to have the installation
inspected by a code official to ensure that the application
meets all local building codes. These installation codes serve
to set the minimum safety requirements for appliance installations.
Unfortunately, if you were to try to install a fuel cell
in your home today, you'd probably meet the quizzical
face of your building inspector. The fact is, most local code
officials haven't seen a fuel cell. The national model
codes upon which local codes are based have only recently
been updated to address residential fuel cell installations,
so there is a large probability that the local codes have
not been updated. Without guidance from the codes, the code
official is left guessing, and cautious code officials may
decide to prohibit the installation of fuel cells altogether.
Likewise, product standards serve to set minimum design and
construction requirements to promote safe practices. Development
of standards can make or break an emerging technology. If
standards are written too loosely, fuel cell performance and
safety may vary so greatly that many pioneering consumers
could be turned off on the technology completely. If shoddy
products proliferate because of their lower costs, they can
set back an entire market for decades. If written too tightly,
however, standards can restrict further innovation and add
useless cost to the design and production of an already expensive
At this stage in the development of fuel cell standards,
there is a real danger that overly onerous standards will
emerge from the standards development process, stifling the
market before it can flourish.
Expertise is needed now in fuel cell codes and standards
development to strike the right balance between caution and
coverage that will lay the foundation for the greatest fuel
cell market success.
Barriers in Retrofit Situations
Certainly life will be wonderful when distributed power generation
becomes a regular part of American life, but few seem eager
to address the home retrofit barrier. New home construction
will certainly be the starting point for residential fuel
cells. A new home can be designed around them. But unfortunately,
new homes aren't even 1 percent of the potential market
for residential fuel cells. What about all of the existing
U.S. homes that will need retrofitting? For fuel cells to
achieve mass commercial success in the shorter term, the manufacturers
will need to consider how to integrate them into existing
Of course, this will not be easy. Existing homes have not
been designed to take advantage of all the benefits that fuel
cells can offer. Fuel cells are an expensive way to replace
grid power, with paybacks measured in decades. They become
more affordable if they can provide you with heat and hot
water, too. But you probably already have a water heater,
a furnace, and a connection to your local electric utility.
All of these provide low-cost, highly reliable service, so
why rush to spend thousands of dollars to rip them out? Most
people don't take on a major renovation like that unless
it either enhances their decor or promises them a payback
of less than 3 years.
Where's the incentive for U.S. consumers to retrofit?
There won't be one until fuel cell manufacturers find
ways to integrate their products cost effectively into existing
homes. And without an incentive for consumers to retrofit,
it will take many decades to realize the massive energy and
environmental benefits that the U.S. government is counting
on from its investments in stationary fuel cell research and
of Cheap Energy
Let's face it. We're a society of consumers.
The more we consume, the healthier the stock market and the
happier we are. We've been bred to be energy abusers.
To wean us from these bad habits, we're going to need
some help. It's going to take a massive effort to re-educate
U.S. consumers to value energy efficiency over cost.
Energy efficiency can be achieved in many ways. Fuel cells
are simply one option, and even if we convince the American
consumer to buy efficiency, without an effective marketing
and consumer education campaign, fuel cells may never be the
consumer's first choice.
Established Way to Measure Fuel Cell Performance
While it's nice to pontificate that we will achieve
great energy savings with fuel cells, only recently have testing
and rating standards started development so we can conduct
fair, meaningful, comparisons of energy performance. This
leaves the industry with little experience in understanding
if the application of requirements in these standards will
accurately reflect product performance. Furthermore, no established
program has been developed to certify that manufacturers'
claims are true and accurate. With the variety of fuel cell
systems and other combined heat and power technologies available
to me, how is the consumer able to determine which will best
meet his or her needs? How should utilities and the government
dispense financial incentives without such certified ratings
in place? And, how can fuel cell manufacturers ensure that
their products are being judged on an equal basis with their
Such are the questions that many consumers, policymakers,
and manufacturers will face before investing a significant
portion of their finances to see fuel cells installed. The
industry needs to develop programs now that not only demonstrate
the performance advantages of fuel cells but will leave no
doubt among consumers and competitors that their performance
claims are true and accurate.
Situation Isn't Hopeless
Fuel cells show great promise in many areas. For my part,
I'd still like to get my hands on one as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, it looks like it will be later than sooner,
unless we can break down some of these barriers.
Luckily, none of these barriers is in new territory. Millions
of products like furnaces and water heaters are installed
in new and existing American homes every year, providing safe,
reliable, and economical service. So, the infrastructure to
address these barriers largely exists, as does the expertise
to navigate it. If fuel cell products are ever to attain success
of the same magnitude, participants in the fuel cell market
must take advantage of the experience of those who have gone
Remember, the best way to bring down fuel cell costs, probably
the technology's biggest impediment, is to sell a lot
of them. That's why the manufacturer members in the
Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association's (GAMA) new
Fuel Cell Group are turning their attention toward issues
like codes and standards, retrofit concepts, and consumer
education that will make or break stationary fuel cell commercialization
on a mass scale. More fuel cell manufacturers, together with
their seasoned counterparts in other established appliance
industries, need to concentrate on getting these products
to market in a big way, and soon; otherwise, the stationary
fuel cell might become nothing more than a niche product or,
even worse, merely a "passing curiosity."
Sutula is the technical services manager for the Power Generation
Division of the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
GAMA is a 68-year-old trade association representing manufacturers
of gas-fired, oil-fired, and electric appliances, components,
and accessories used in connection with space heating, water
heating, power generation, and other residential, commercial,
and industrial applications. GAMA's Power Generation
Division represents manufacturers of equipment such as fuel
cells and microturbines used to provide building services.
GAMA can be reached at 703/ 525-7060, or on the web at www.gamanet.org.