Fuel Cells for a Sustainable Future?

TitleFuel Cells for a Sustainable Future?
Publication TypeTyndall Working Paper
SeriesTyndall Centre Working Papers
Tyndall Consortium Institution


Secondary TitleTyndall Centre Working Paper 50
AuthorsPowell, J., M. Peters, A. Ruddell, and J. Halliday
Year of Publication2004

Fuel cells are often perceived as being part of the future solution to the 'energy crisis', providing 'clean' electricity with virtually no emissions. The development of fuel cells is considered to be an integral part of a sustainable ‘hydrogen economy’, in which hydrogen gas is produced using renewable sources of energy, and which offers the possibility of abundant energy with negligible emissions. However, hydrogen does not occur naturally but has to be produced, usually by the reformation of hydrocarbons or electrolysed from water. Currently fuel cells are nearly always fuelled by natural gas or by hydrogen produced from natural gas and therefore, in terms of climate change, still have significant impacts on the environment.

>This paper explores whether the stationary fuel cell is one of the technologies that will lead us to the cleaner production of energy despite the question mark over some of their environmental benefits and their financial cost. In particular we examine the current technology and environmental benefits of combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cells.

>It is found that there are both technical and non technical barriers to the development of stationary fuel cells as a major component towards sustainable energy. For some emissions the environmental benefits of fuel cells are not clear. When fuelled by natural gas carbon emissions may only be marginally different from conventional technologies. However for other emissions there may be more significant environment benefits, plus the advantages of low maintenance, reliability and quiet operation. Combined heat and power applications increase the overall efficiency but this can apply equally to conventional technology. The suitability of fuel cells for CHP applications depends crucially on the heat power ratio required by the user and on how variable demands for heat and power are met.

>The overall environmental benefits of stationary fuel cells depend on a complex interaction between efficiency, type of fuel supply, end-user requirements, availability of links with grid networks and the technologies with which they are being compared.. A lifecycle assessment comparing stationary fuel cell and conventional CHP technologies for a residential application has been undertaken and will be reported in a subsequent paper.

>Non-technical barriers have also been identified framed in the underlying economic realities of supply and demand, the cultural acceptance of integrating new technologies into existing and proposed projects, the prevailing legislative framework and the subsequent propagation of currently under-developed market niches.

>This report shows that although fuel cells provide an attractive proposition for a contribution towards more sustainable energy supplies in various applications, there needs firstly to be a more complete assessment and understanding of the attainable benefits (environmentally, socially and economically). In addition there needs to be a more detailed recognition of the circumstances under which the development of realistic markets for their expansion and integration is likely to occur.

>To further identify the opportunities and barriers to fuel cell development a series of semi-structured interviews have been carried out with stakeholders in this technology. This will be the subject of a subsequent working paper in this series.

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