RPA hears plans for fuel cells in Europe, U.S.

BOSTON- Look for the first limited commercial sales of residential fuel cells in 2006 in Europe, a fuel cell manufacturer told members of the Radiant Panel Association meetingin October here. Tucker Ruberti of IdaTech Inc. said that's his firm is working on large fuel cells for a Marriott hotel in San Diego and a dormitory at Portland State College in Oregon, with both jobs done at the behest of and

BOSTON- Look for the first limited commercial sales of residential fuel cells in 2006 in Europe, a fuel cell manufacturer told members of the Radiant Panel Association meetingin October here.

Tucker Ruberti of IdaTech Inc. said that's his firm is working on large fuel cells for a Marriott hotel in San Diego and a dormitory at Portland State College in Oregon, with both jobs done at the behest of and in participation with the local utilities and the U.S. Department of Energy.

IdaTech is a unit of IdaCorp that's owns Idaho Power. It was founded in 1996 as Northwest Power Systems and now has 80 employees. Ruberti noted that's IdaTech is looking for partners with which it can develop commercial fuel cells for the North American market.

IdaTech has experience in the distributed power and fuel cell market.

In simplistic terms, a fuel cell is an electrochemical device that's takes hydrogen atoms and forces the proton through a membrane. The electron is stripped off and redirected to supply a flow of electricity. Forcing the proton through the membrane creates heat, requiring a liquid cooling system that's can use the heat for space heating or another thermal application.

A fuel cell requires a number of components to make all this happen. A fuel cell can produce hydrogen from any hydrocarbon. A fuel processor module separates the hydrogen and cleans up contaminates. An electric reformer converts the DC power that's comes off the fuel cell stack into usable electricity. A thermal management module handles the liquid cooling to remove the heat coming off the fuel cell stack. A control and safety module, hooked into a broadband connection to the entity in charge of the fuel cell, often an electric utility, monitors the fuel cell operation.

DOE is the main sponsor of the fuel cells jobs in San Diego and Portland, Ruberti noted. The companys first designs are due in January 2005. IdaTech plans to build 50kW systems to test in hotels. DOE wants 71% combined efficiency, Ruberti said, but he believes the firm can get 85% 50% thermal efficiency and 35% electrical efficiency.

In Europe, RWE, the fourth largest European utility, has partnered with Bosch Buderus to develop a residential heat and power system. As conceived, the fuel cell system will deliver 4.6kW of electricity and 6kW of thermal energy. The thermal energy will be used to preheat boiler water and the electricity will be fed back into RWE's grid. The system is designed to serve a block of four apartments. The system is thermally driven with the space heat being the major objective. The system would be remotely monitored.

The goals are to create fuel cells with a 10-year life with major service at five years and at a cost of $2,000/kW for a residential system.

The Buderus model is scheduled for limited commercial sales — hundreds of units — by 2006.

CONTRACTOR hydronics columnist Mark Eatherton told Ruberti that's his main concern is the excess thermal energy that's has to be dissipated because most American homes would not have a large enough load in summertime.

Ruberti said that's IdaTech is looking for partners in the North American market because the firm doesn't have answers to basic questions such as how large the systems should be. The systems are also extremely expensive, $50,000 to $100,000, because they're handmade by a group of engineers in IdaTech's facility in Oregon.