Fuel Cells: Key to Our Electric Energy Future

For more than 20 years, I have been championing the use of fuel cell powered cars to connect the natural gas distribution network of this country with the electric distribution network, making them partners in providing clean, safe, electrical energy at the point of use, and for export back into the national grid. Some early patents were awarded, but they were way ahead of their time.

The technological foundation for this concept remains strong and vital—representing a disruptive force aimed at the heart of traditional utility system operations. However, there seems to be a potential partnership that can be forged between auto manufacturers, electric utilities, and natural gas utilities to make this all happen.

Outage Risk = Opportunity

In the U.S. there are two centralized energy systems: the electric utility grid and the natural gas network. Both systems together touch just about every home. Surprisingly, most people never think about combining the two systems to create a resilient hybrid system, immune from major storm disruptions and terrorist attacks. We hear a great deal today about the smart grid. Such a hybrid system can be about as smart as it gets, and quite flexible and sophisticated too.

When a big weather event strikes, the above-ground electric utility system can take an awful beating. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, because it is simply too expensive to retrofit all those lines underground (some estimates suggest at least 20 times as expensive as overhead construction). On the other hand, when was the last time your natural gas service was taken out during any kind of storm—winter or summer?

Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask if there was a way to convert your home’s reliable natural gas service into electricity for your household? The best way to do this, in my opinion, is using a fuel cell—a device that can electrochemically convert natural gas into a useable fuel by stripping off the hydrogen portion of the methane molecule and combining it with oxygen to generate clean electricity and some waste heat.

Fuel cell technology is very attractive. It has relatively high conversion efficiency (32%–42%); produces very small waste byproducts and some low-grade waste heat; comes in a highly modular design, allowing for size expansion; is proven technology; and uses a native and abundant resource—methane—available from natural and man-made sources.

Fuel Cell Car Power Plants

What if we used fuel cell powered cars in a very different way than for just transportation? A typical car fuel cell is about 45 kW to 50 kW in size. That capacity is much more than an average home needs. So I ask a simple question: Why can’t your car power your house both during normal conditions and when the utility system is unavailable due to widespread outages?

Go one step further. Why not have all cars generate power wherever they are parked? Most people only drive their car about 4% to 6% of the day—mostly for commuting. The rest of the time it just sits there. It could be put to work during that downtime.

You see, your car follows you everywhere, and everywhere you go you need energy. If parking lots were suitably designed with natural gas and electrical connections, your car could be turned into a portable power plant whenever you park it. It could provide you with the energy you need and the excess could be sold into the market.

The really nice part of this is that fuel cell powered cars can do it 24/7/365. No vagaries of the wind, no clouds to block sunshine, just lots of clean power generated all the time. It is the natural gas network and the electric grid working together.

By the Numbers

There are more than 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S. If even 10% of those were 45-kW fuel cell powered cars connected to the electric grid, it would be equivalent to adding 1,125 GW of power capacity to the system. That’s more than the total generating capacity currently installed in the U.S.

The implications of this are staggering. How would this disruption affect electric and natural gas utilities, automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, companies operating fleets of vehicles, and others?

Because the electric utility industry will always be vulnerable to large outages, this natural gas-electric concept could be significant. The fuel cell is the energy transformer between the two systems. Fuel cell powered cars make it possible to instantly decentralize the grid, if under attack by Mother Nature or terrorists. For those of you committed to alternative energy sources, you can still have them if you want—in fact, fuel cell powered cars are the ideal back up for them.

Is this a disruptive technology? You bet! Could it be done? I think so. ■

Harry T. Roman is a retired engineer, research and development project manager, teacher, inventor, and author. He has 12 patents to his credit and is a past recipient of the New Jersey Inventor of the Year Award, given by the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.