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Stationary fuel cells are now being used to power residential homes, which could allow each residence to generate his own power efficiently.

Clean Power

Residential Use of Fuel Cells on the Rise

Stationary fuel cells are now being used to power residential homes, which could allow each residence to generate his own power efficiently.

The home of the future might see the end of power lines coming in from centralized electric utilities. Instead, imagine a combined heat and electric power system that employs a hydrogen fuel cell, generating all of the home’s electric power on the spot in a space not much bigger than what is now taken up by a water heater. The fuel cell uses hydrogen produced by a solar-powered electrolyzer compressor on and under the roof, making the home entirely energy self–sufficient and all of its power free except for maintenance costs.

Imagine no more electric bills and no more danger of lost power from a downed power line or system failure. All the power used in the home for everything from heating the bathwater to opening the garage door will be produced on the property itself.

The technology to make this happen exists today and is in use in commercial buildings and remote base stations. But according to a recent Business Wire article, the biggest growth projected in the industry over the next few years will come in the residential market. Stationary fuel cells are certainly a growing industry, with 9,000 units sold in 2010, an increase of 60% over 2009. And it’s expected that this figure will top 1.2 million units by 2017.

Despite this projected growth, the industry has a number of hurdles yet before the true growth potential can be realized. The technology needs to be standardized, economies of scale introduced to lower capital production costs, and the market visibility of fuel cell technology improved. Still, these are factors at play in all new, growing industries. The more difficult barriers involving developing workable technology have been overcome already.

If a solar-hydrogen fuel cell system for home power does become the norm, say in 20 or 30 years, it will radically improve energy efficiency and provide environmental benefits, but it will also do more than that. Just as the personal computer and the Internet have decentralized the information world, so a development that allows each residence to generate his own power efficiently will decentralize another crucial area of life.

The model of power generation that has held true ever since electricity was first marketed, in which big central power stations supply electricity over a vast distribution system to paying customers, will be replaced by self-sufficient homes beholden to no one. Overhead and underground power lines might become a thing of the past. The technology of the future may lend itself, paradoxically, to greater independence and decentralization, even as, in other ways, it ties the world more and more tightly together.

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Photo via kevin dooley

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