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Fuel cells could make off-grid mainstream

A new generation of fuel cells might just be the future of stable and reliable energy supplies at home - at least that’s what a number of researchers and big firms think. In June Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute produced a new ceramic fuel cell (which looks a bit like a CD rack) that efficiently converts natural gas to both electricity and heat - enough for a four-person home.

It’s hoped the new cells will appeal to those who would like to go off-grid but are looking for greater energy efficiency than generators, and a simpler route to a constant supply than using renewables with energy storage options. There are plans to commercialise the cell, but first, a test in 150 homes is on the cards. We’re a big fan of in-situ testing of breakthrough technologies, so await the results with interest.

More recently, the news has got rather more mainstream, with the well-publicised entry of giant General Electric into the domestic fuel cell business. Wired.com says the move is linked to an increasing interest in going off-grid sparked by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. If fuel cells were to take off in Europe, without such weather extremities, the reasons would presumably be more about personal energy security in the face of rising prices and political pressures on supply.

Using its considerable research and development muscle, the company has set out to tackle a number of issues that have held back ceramic fuel cells for up to this point - namely around efficiency, cost and robustness. Spraying on the ceramic layer and linking the cell to a gas engine are two developments, and GE’s product is now too heading to pilot stage.

There are quite a number of other players, academic and commercial, developing variations on home fuel cell models. A real race to prove that fuel cells are something that can be a relevant force outside the transport sector, and at an economical cost, seems to be well underway. While off-grid is unlikely to be for everyone, it could form an interesting part of a more diversified energy future.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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