Could Household Fuel Cell Technology Catch on in the U.S.?

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Harnessing hydrogen and oxygen as a power source in your home? That technology is actually possible and currently exists, and it is starting to create buzz as an efficient and clean source of  household energy generation.

Known as a household fuel cell, the energy generation unit has the ability to supply 60 percent of a family’s power needs through more sustainable means, a concept that manufacturers are hoping draws green tech “first adopters” to the product.

A fuel cell (center) and hot water storage unit (right), along with a Li-on storage battery (left) on display at Panasonic's "Eco Ideas" House. Photo: Panasonic

Unlike electricity from a battery, which provides a limited amount from a stored supply, fuel cells can create a continuous generation of electricity through an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen, extracted from natural gas and oxygen.

Because the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen produce only water, which is used for household hot water, the absence of toxic waste provides an added environmental benefit to the technology.

Household fuel cell units also allow for the direct conversion into electrical energy on-site, like a mini power station, increasing efficiency from traditional means which transport energy produced from off-site sources. An estimated 63 percent of energy is lost during transmission to a household with traditional means of energy-sourcing, versus 15 percent with a fuel cell unit.

Panasonic launched the world’s first household fuel cell in May 2009 and has sold approximately 2,000 of the units to date, albeit all in Japan where the technology was developed. A subsidy by the Japanese government covers approximately half of the current ¥3 million price tag (approx. $35,000) for the units, which are sold and distributed through gas companies supplying energy to households.

According to Toshiki Shimizu of the Panasonic Corporation’s Fuel Cell Project, one unit can reduce an average household’s CO2 generation by one-third, or 1.5 tons per year, and reduce primary energy consumption by 4,500kWh per year.

Earth911.com toured Panasonic’s “Eco Ideas” House outside Tokyo last week, where incorporation of the fuel cell into a complete home energy management system (HEMS) was displayed. Combined in a comprehensive system including solar panels for additional energy generation and a lithium-ion battery pack for storage of produced energy, along with energy-efficient smart appliances and high-performance insulation, the HEMS is the linchpin in Panasonic’s aim to create CO2 emission-free homes.

A display fuel cell sample at CEATEC allows visitors to map the inner technology of the unit. Photo: Lori Brown, Earth911

Clean energy, reduced CO2 generation and lower energy consumption. This triad of characteristics lend perfectly to the green technology demand on the market, leading us to question whether this technology can be expected to catch on in the U.S. anytime soon. Turns out that is a loaded question with a couple different answers.

First, the price of the household fuel cell until, even with the subsidy, does not provide a return on investment (ROI) before the unit has to be placed. So early adopters of the technology are truly looking for the environmental benefits, rather than the economic. Shimizu did indicate that bringing the price down is critical to widespread adoption, something Panasonic is working on.

Second, the fuel cell unit lends itself well to smaller households typically found in Japan. Using more energy on average per household in the U.S., the fuel cell would have to be adapted to produce around 3-5kW, rather than the 1kW it currently produces, something also on Panasonic’s radar.

So what does the market forecast for fuel cells look like? Panasonic aims to expand production to 600,000 units per year by 2020, and looks to bring the product to market in regions where current demand and infrastructure would lend well to the technology.

Production expansion will likely yield manufacturing sources outside of Japan, as the manufacturing of the units are labor-intensive and expensive. Current production yields a mere 17 units per day with 14 full-time laborers.

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