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issue: June 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

Guest Editorial
(More) Reasons You Can't Install a Fuel Cell in Your Home Today


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by Dave Sutula, technical services manager, Power Generation Division, Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA)

Think of it. A generator so clean burning that one could drink its exhaust and so consumer-friendly that a whisper-quiet box the size of a small refrigerator could supply both the power and heat needed for any U.S. home.

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.

Inadequate 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 technology.

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.

Economic 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 homes.

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 infrastructure.

Culture 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.

No 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 peers' products?
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.

The 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 before them.

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."


About the Author

Dave 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.

 

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