Thursday, November 12, 2009

A look at home fuel cell units by ClearEdge Power

faq_clearedge5.jpgClearEdge is publishing ads (via adsense) suggesting that before you consider solar or wind power systems, that one considers fuel cells. That piqued my curiosity and I'm taking a look. The thing about fuel cells is they, well, require a fuel. Solar or wind power systems do not require fuel, and derive power from innate characteristics of the universe like sunlight or wind. That means a user of a fuel cell has to pay money to someone who provides the fuel. On the other hand a user of a solar panel or wind turbine has to pay for that equipment, just proving that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Their claim is that the fuel cell system is more efficient than competing solar or wind power systems. I do believe that fuel cells make more sense in fixed installations rather than in vehicles.

ClearEdge5 is a combined heat and power (CHP) energy system based on fuel cell technology. It consists of three core components modularly designed for ease of installation and maintenance. The Fuel Processor converts natural gas into ultra-clean hydrogen through a catalytic process, as opposed to burning the natural gas, which dramatically reduces pollutants. Hence it would require natural gas service at ones house.

The thing is designed to interconnect with existing building electrical systems. Its designed so that if the grid goes down, it switches to a "grid sustaining" mode and to provide backup power keeping your lights on even if the neighbors lights are off.

They say the list price is less expensive than equivalent photovoltaic systems. For the same capital investment, the ClearEdge5 gives you 90 MWh of annual combined electricity and heat, compared to approximately 8MWh generated by a 5kW solar system.

Nowhere on the site do they discuss what happens to the parts of natural gas other than the hydrogen. That is the unit contains a reformer unit to strip hydrogen out of natural gas. The DoE page on natural gas reforming shows several methods. The chemical notation for natural gas, CH4, indicates it has one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms per molecule, and that all the separation methods causes creation of carbon monoxide (CO). Hence this sort of unit is "clean" only by some curious definition of "clean".