Buildings are being designed to be electric-powered to help with reducing fossil fuel usage. The irony is that a large part of the electric production today is coming from the use of fossil fuels, but this must be viewed as part of the transition to move away from fossil fuel dependence. The main challenges of converting to renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, are the inconsistent production periods which require the system to have enough storage capacity to remain a reliable source. Fuel cell technology is advancing to meet this challenge.
The Department of Energy has dedicated resources to develop and deploy cost-effective fuel cell technology. This investment in energy efficiency is expected to reduce the cost of fuel cells to be more comparable to other power options, but they have high reliability and resiliency. According to Energy.gov, residential fuel cells can cost $2,300 to $4,000 per kilowatt, and fuel cells for commercial buildings range from $3,500 to $5,500 per kilowatt. Due to their dependability, use of commercial fuel cells for baseload power and heat is being seen for hospitals, hotels, and industrial plants. Data centers and telecom are using fuel cells for backup power.
The lifetime expectancy of fuel cells currently is between 40,000 and 80,000 hours. Temperature can impact durability, but fuel cells can operate in temperatures below freezing and above boiling. Fuel cells are being manufactured all over the world including the U.S., Canada, Korea, Japan, and Europe. They can be small enough to power a cell phone or large enough to power a home or commercial operation.
The hydrogen that is used in fuel cells generates power by causing a chemical reaction rather than combustion with byproducts of water and heat. There are many sources that can be used to produce hydrogen including fossil fuels, but more importantly, nuclear and other renewable energy sources can provide significant quantities of hydrogen which can offset fossil fuel usage. Production can be at the site, centrally located and distributed, or at a semi-central location closer to the recipient. Technologies are rapidly evolving to make hydrogen production economic and environmentally friendly.
The overall challenge to hydrogen production is cost. To support energy independence, the cost of hydrogen must be comparable to conventional fuels and technologies. The DOE has worked with stakeholders, academia and national labs to research and set goals for market cost. The DOE and commercial sector are dedicated to finding production solutions with exciting breakthroughs happening constantly.
Long-term solutions for hydrogen storage focus on materials that offer increased capacities, lower pressure, and higher system efficiencies. In recent years, more than 400 new hydrogen storage materials have been investigated by the DOE. The auto industry also has a high investment in dedicating resources to finding an economic fuel cell solution.
While this all sounds exciting, what does this have to do with managing a building or facility today? With the Paris Climate Agreement encouraging governments around the world to mandate net-zero goals, building and facility stakeholders must transition their buildings toward complying with heightened carbon emission goals. Prepare. Consider integrating fuel cell technology into the next upgrade project or new design. Investment in fuel cell technology will positively impact resiliency, return on investment, and prepare your building for the future.