For years it has seemed that fuel cell technology was gearing up to be the savior of our transportation dilemma. These days it is looking like it will be more useful in buildings. This can only be a promising move towards a more sustainable, and realistic, future.
Scientists tell us that the amount of solar radiation that strikes the earth in one hour (4.3 × 1020 J) is more than all of the energy that is currently being used on the planet in a year (4.1 × 1020 J in 2001). And while this should certainly inspire us to pursue a solar-powered future, harnessing the sun’s energy so that it’s usable is still a real challenge. As solar photovoltaic panels decrease in price (as they have over the last few years), they are becoming more commonplace; however, without a means of “stockpiling” it, renewable power (including solar and wind) remains what’s called an intermittent energy. This means that since the sun only shines for a portion of the day, and the wind only blows at certain times, we can’t use these energy sources to run a 24/7 power-grid without incorporating some kind of storage mechanism into the system. And while many people are keen to put solar panels on their roofs, they probably wouldn’t be so thrilled about keeping a bunch of old lead-based batteries around.
But things are changing; as a result of new technologies, we now have more advanced batteries–as well as fuel cell technology, flywheels and other new options–to choose from.
In his recent book “The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World”, economist Jeremy Rifkin describes a new economic model that is launching a sea change in the world’s use of energy. Rifkin reveals how the convergence of Internet communication technology and renewable energies is giving rise to a new (third) industrial revolution, a revolution that has already been endorsed by the EU, and is taking off, as we speak, in countries like Germany and Japan. He breaks down his strategy into five essential pillars:
1. Shifting to Renewable Energy;
2. Converting Buildings into Power Plants;
3. Hydrogen and Other Energy Storage Devices;
4. Smart Grid Technology;
5. Plug-In, Hybrid, Electric and Fuel Cell Technology based Transportation.
Rifkin, like many other experts, talks about the need to decentralize the power grid, to democratize energy, turning every suitable or retrofittable building into a powerplant that produces its own clean energy. Many are predicting that net-zero construction will become a $1.3 trillion global business by 2035, driven largely by demand from Europe–where building codes are increasingly requiring a zero-energy performance. The government in the UK has also decreed that by 2016, all new-build homes must include some form of on-site power generation.
One German-based company, Baxi Innotech, has partnered with Burnaby’s Ballard Power Systems to combine Ballard’s low-heat PEM fuel cells in a system that–when used in conjunction with renewable energy sources (or by extracting hydrogen from natural gas or bio-gas)–provides both electricity and heat, known as combined heat and power (CHP). This work has been in beta (preview/prototype) development since 2002, and Baxi plans to launch their system in the European market over the next two years. Boulder, CO based clean-tech consulting firm Pike Research projects worldwide revenue from fuel cells and hydrogen will reach $785 million alone by the end of this year. There’s been no word yet on when and where the method will be available here; Canada and the US haven’t been mandating the strict building codes and carbon pricing that have driven the European market to these technologies. And doesn’t that give us all the more reason to educate ourselves about these systems and demand–not only that the technology be made available to us, but also that we implement better building codes and full cost accounting methods here…?
Ballard Power Systems was founded in 1979 by Dr. Geoffrey Ballard. Ballard is now a world leader in zero emission, proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells and has been seeking commercialization of these hydrogen storage devices for use in vehicles and buses. The company has also been working on generators and distributed generation technologies. One of Ballard’s biggest local success stories is the fuel-cell bus fleet in Whistler, put into service right before the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Whistler fleet remains the largest of its kind in the world.
Of course, fuel cell technology comes with its own set of impediments, one of which is its current high cost. This obstacle to market acceptance can in part be attributed to the use of platinum to catalyze the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The biggest platinum reserves in the world are in South Africa, where there has recently been talk about creating a kind of ‘Platinum Valley’ that emulates the success of Silicon Valley in the U.S. However, relying on any one country or company to supply a resource is risky, and there is only so much of this super-finite element out there. Researchers have found that using catalysts composed of carbon nanotubes promises to be a much cheaper way of making fuel cells, and there would be no resource supply issue down the road.
Unfortunately, the deck of cards being doled out to “energy players” is currently still stacked in favour of the competition; for example, the oil & gas industry has received over $400 billion in subsidies in 2010 alone, according to the IEA. Many people believe governments can level the playing field by providing more incentives for power consumers to convert to clean energy systems, as well as rewards for early adopters. Programs such as feed-in-tariffs can also help to create a faster system payback; these have worked well in countries like Germany. Such incentives would help reduce reliance on foreign oil–a reliance that has remained a fact of life for many people, even in our country. Much of Eastern Canada, after all, does not have the privilege of burning Canadian oil and/or gasoline; most of their oil is imported from other countries such as Iraq and Nigeria.
So can Canadians look forward to a day, in the not too distant future, when fuel cell technology will provide the electricity and heat we need in our homes? Quite possibly! But this type of technology, as previously mentioned, is not the only one that has been progressing. The recent surge of interest in electric vehicles has spurred the development of many promising new battery systems. In addition, ultra low-friction flywheels, compressed air systems and super-capacitors are being fine-tuned to meet the pressing need for energy storage.
WILL FUEL CELL TECHNOLOGY ANSWER OUR ENERGY NEEDS?
Probably not. At least not on it’s own. But if we build better, smarter buildings, fuel cell technology has potential value.
Anyone involved in the building industry can’t help but be excited by all these revolutionary developments in the area of energy production and storage. But even as new innovations and technologies become integrated into the way we design and construct homes, the fact remains that energy saved is energy earned. It’s vital that we use the resources that are presently available to us as efficiently as possible–by upgrading insulation, for example, or by installing new high-efficiency windows and doors. Of course, as we create tighter building envelopes to conserve energy, we don’t want to incorporate materials that have the potential to off-gas carcinogenic chemicals. That’s why we also need to use healthy, non-toxic building materials.
With all that’s happening on so many different fronts, it’s becoming increasingly important that we take a holistic approach to any new build or retrofit. No single technology is going to provide a complete ”solution” on its own. Our hope is that we will soon be constructing a “Living, Breathing Building” that will serve as a template for anyone seeking to bring their home “back from the future” into today’s world.
Its walls will be made from renewable materials, such as our hemp bio-masonry. New thin-film solar panels on the building’s roof would collect the sun’s abundant, renewable, free energy, using it to create hydrogen that will be stored in a fuel cell such as Baxi’s. From there it will be transformed into both heat and electricity. Our building will thus heat & power itself. It’s already happening in Germany–why not here? The best way to predict the future, is to create it, after all!
Interested partners, please contact us!