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Featured Residential Fuel Cells: Japan vs US/EU

  1. Apr 3, 2017 #1

    anorlunda

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    For several years, I've been seeing mention of growing number of residential fuel cells in Japan. But in the USA and the EU, hardly a mention. Does anyone know why the puzzling discrepancy?


    The American company Plug Power has been pushing fuel cells since 1997, but their penetration seems minor compared to the Japanese.

     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 3, 2017 #2

    russ_watters

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    I see a couple of major problems that make this look barely better than a hoax or gimmick:

    1. They aren't clear about what fuel they use. Natural gas or hydrogen? I live in a townhouse community that uses propane for heat and despite natural gas costing about half as much, it still wouldn't be worth it to run a couple hundred yards of piping to connect to the nearest gas main. We actually initiated a project and then cancelled it after the cost estimate came in. So if they aren't selling these to already connected houses (whether gas or hydrogen), there is no payback over its lifetime (assume 20 years).

    2. If a house uses a 95% efficient natural gas water heater already, there is no savings at all on hot water. And the Japanese can pretend they are displacing fossil fuel electricity, but this is the country that recently shut off all its nuclear power, so they are wasting to save. Maybe they save some money on the electricity, but it isn't much*.

    3. Even if we make all of the most optimistic assumptions possible, they claim a $540 savings. In what timeframe? It looks to me like that's the lifetime savings*. So you probably spend more money just installing this thing - even if you already have the infrastructure and the device is free - than it saves over its lifetime.

    Cool technology that is nowhere close to worth buying.

    *Where I live, the commodity price of propane is about 3x that of natural gas and I still only pay about $10 a month for hot water and cooking in the summer. Ok, so I don't cook much, so figure that hot water costs about $100 a year per person with propane or $30 per year per person with natural gas. For a family of 4, for 20 years, that's only $2400. Let's say you save...well, you don't save anything on your hot water, only your electricity. If a third of what this makes is electricity and if natural gas costs a fourth what electricity costs, that's $3,200 worth of electricity produced over its lifetime, saving about $2400.
     
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2017
  4. Apr 3, 2017 #3

    anorlunda

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    I try to be skeptical about exaggerated claims too. But when someone reaches an installed base of 120,000 units, I'm forced to sit up and pay attention. One source below says costs per kw about the same as solar, but kwh/year up to 8x solar because they can run 24x7. On the other hand, you have to pay your gas bill, whereas solar has zero fuel cost. Tokyo Gas claims savings $400-$500 per year (see below.)

    And from Panasonic
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  5. Apr 3, 2017 #4

    russ_watters

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    I'd be very curious to know the details of the installations. What they are, how they work, and how they are paid for? Heavy government subsidies is how nearly uselessly expensive solar arrays get installed in the US. It's getting better, but we really got ripped off for the last 20 years.
    I you install a gigantic water heater and really, really small fuel cell, yes, you can run it all the time. But it sounds like a contradiction of scale to install a 100 W generator for $500....assuming with reverse economy of scale a small installation could actually be so cheap, which I doubt. You'd spend more buying and piping-up a new water tank to pair with it.

    ....I say "cheap", but that would still be 20x the per-watt installed cost of a natural gas generator:
    http://www.homedepot.com/p/Generac-11-000-Watt-LP-10-000-Watt-NG-Air-Cooled-Standby-Generator-7031/300117782?cm_mmc=Shopping|THD|G|0|G-BASE-PLA-D28I-Generators|&gclid=Cj0KEQjw5YfHBRDzjNnioYq3_swBEiQArj4pdJdOe6IzmAgMnLN95WYWh4LoMPL2mN2s4axpL9F0BkEaAv6m8P8HAQ&gclsrc=aw.ds

    [edit]
    Trying to put together some fractured numbers from your sources, the Bloomberg source says $16,700 to buy, but doesn't say if that includes installation and doesn't say the capacity. But it says it could save $500 a year, which is by their own optimistic estimates a 33 year payback. That's just terrible.

    If you really want to do CHP, the cheaper way to do it would be with a standard water cooled natural gas generator. The numbers above suggest that $16,700 is for the 700 W generator, so it costs more like a hundred times what the gas generator I linked above cost.
     
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2017
  6. Apr 3, 2017 #5

    russ_watters

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    Also, the article's claim that this is a hydrogen fuel cell is little short of a lie:
    I don't care what it is doing inside: if you insert methane and oxygen at one end and out the other end comes water vapor and CO2, it's powered by methane, not hydrogen.
     
  7. Apr 3, 2017 #6
    Our utility was taking names for home fuel cell installations, I'd guess back in the early 1990's. Natural gas in, produced heat and electricity. They stopped promoting the idea a few years later, and I haven't heard anything about it since. This is in Northern Illinois.
     
  8. Apr 4, 2017 #7

    rbelli1

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    $16,700 investment to save $500 is 3% ROI. No compounding and a limited life and no liquidity. Invest that money in a marginally risky investment vehicle and just pay the electric bill. You make out ahead almost guaranteed. Invest in a renewal energy company and you get a better profit (probably. but the warranty on the gizmo is not 33 years so the risk on it is actually higher) and save the planet.

    Fuel cells have certain advantages that make them ideal for certain uses. A reasonable sized unit for a camper or boat would be spectacular as they make little or no noise in operation. Premium price for premium comfort.

    This may change as the technology evolves however nothing will take off fast until a killer application comes along.

    BoB
     
  9. Apr 4, 2017 #8

    CWatters

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    The residential fuel situation in the UK currently looks like this..

    http://www.nottenergy.com/energy_cost_comparison/

    Electricity 16.3p/kwh
    Natural Gas 5.1p/kwh
    Heating Oil 5p/kwh
    LPG 6.3p/kwh
    Heat pump 4-6p/kwh (Uses electricity and assumes a COP of 2.7-3.5)
    Hydrogen >25p/kwh (From below)

    Hydrogen is only used in a few cars and busses so hard for me to find data. The market for hydrogen may not be operating in the same way as other markets meaning there could be issues due to lack of competition and/or subsidies etc.

    http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/...-green-hydrogen-station-opens-Teddington.html

    1kg Hydrogen has an energy content of about 39kwh so that works out at 25.6p/kwh.
     
  10. Apr 4, 2017 #9
    Agreed. Seems like one niche they may fill pretty well now, is when there is a bio-gas available.Though you could just burn this for heat, and/or run it into a turbine for electricity, a fuel cell might be better sized than a turbine for smaller sources.

    Bloom Energy was promoting this use for their fuel cells, but AFAIK, the installations to date have been with natural gas supply.

    http://www.bloomenergy.com/clean-energy/

    Here's the only note I saw on their site of an actual bio-gas install:

    http://www.bloomenergy.com/newsroom/press-release-07-28-11/

    Ahh, a search site came up with more:

    https://www.google.com/search?q=site:www.bloomenergy.com+biogas&submit=Search+Site

     
  11. Apr 4, 2017 #10

    anorlunda

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    All the replies so far, are not responsive to my question in the OP.

    The question is not whether fuel cells are good, but what is different in Japan?

    The Japanese government subsidy of $3000 for a $17000 purchase does not seem sufficient to explain their success.

    The answer may be
    • social
    • or that residential energy budgets are very different in Japan
    • or the mechanism of sales in Japan via the local gas company
    • or the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami made dependence on the power grid less attractive to homeowners
    • or that Panasonic made a strategic decision to not export
    • or something Japan specific.
    Is there anyone with Japanese specific knowledge?
     
  12. Apr 4, 2017 #11

    CWatters

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    Japan is very dependant on imported oil and gas. I think something like 75% of their energy comes (came?) from imported oil and gas. I believe their original plan was to use Nuclear and Renewable electricity to make Hydrogen to displace imported oil use.

    The ENE Farm project..
    http://www.ieafuelcell.com/documents/excodocs/50/5_Japan_NEDO_Update.pdf

    Mentions a 50% capex subsidy.
     
  13. Apr 4, 2017 #12

    anorlunda

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    @CWatters , thanks. You may have hit the nail in the head.

    That slide show says Japan decided that hydrogen is strategic, including giving their auto industry a head start. That makes sense.

    Plug power in the USA is focusing on vehicles

    Competition between competing energy sources is very healthy.
     
  14. Apr 4, 2017 #13

    russ_watters

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    Unfortunately no Japanese-specific knowledge. The best I could do is guess it might be "social" (most of the rest are a subset of that) because similar pressure exists here, it's just not necessarily focused the same. The above post about Bloom Energy's implementation at Walmart is due to social pressure on corporations....though I also wouldn't count out the amazing power combo of marketing + ignorance.

    And unfortunately, most of the news sources are "human interest" type stories that don't ask/answer such important questions (or mislead about the answers).

    ...though I do see that the subsidy used to be much better.

    [Edit] I'd also add that unless you can find an actual survey, it may not be an answerable question. You might consider what you might get in response to the same question about residential solar.
     
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2017
  15. Apr 4, 2017 #14

    russ_watters

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    Actually, thinking about this more, I don't think the question is answerable at all.

    When a woman buys a new purse, I don't think there is any debate that "social" is the entire reason for the purchase. But for an early adoption of a technology that objectively has no value today, so no reason to buy it besides "social" except perhaps "corporate charity", people who buy it wouldn't be very inclined to acknowledge "social" is the reason and probably don't believe it is, even if it is. Often I think they believe they are buying something that will save money or the environment, even if it isn't true. So the motivations behind the purchase may be hidden or even just plain false....which I'm not sure is the type of answer you want -- I suspect you want a "real" (logical/factual/useful/meaningful) answer and I don't think there is one.
     
  16. May 8, 2017 #15

    anorlunda

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    I think @CWatters had the real answer Russ.
    Hydrogen in Japan can be compared to renewables in the USA and EU. Their government has identified hydrogen as their strategy to save their future. It becomes seen as patriotic to get on the bandwagon. That's similar to the "social" factor you mentioned.

    Remember, that Japan's energy resources are very thin compared to ours. They used to depend on nuke, but now that is changing rapidly. Aiding their car export industry is also very important to Japan.

    But what happens in Japan does not argue against your conclusion that fuel cells don't make sense here.

    But numerous press reports say that fuel cell cars will be offered in the USA to compete with gasoline-battery hybrids and EVs. We'll have to see what success they have.

    p.s. There was a proposal in the 90s to make car alternators adaptable to put out up to 7kw of 120 or 230VAC to power your house. Imagine the twist on the household side if your household power use was reduced to near zero (zero net with solar) when you are away at work, but when you come home your natural-gas fuel cell car provides your AC power. That eliminates the cost of gas pipelines to your house. It would also be fun to own two cars, one EV, and the other fuel cell. At night, car B could recharge car A.
     
  17. May 8, 2017 #16

    HAYAO

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    A Japanese coming through :biggrin:

    EneFarm uses LP gas and converts it into hydrogen by steam reforming. Although this does release CO2, it's much less than when you are using typical gas/water system. Like someone has already mentioned, the production still probably releases CO2 and uses a lot of energy, so I am also skeptical that if this is environmentally friendly or not. As a matter of fact, I don't think these manufacturers are selling them for environmental reasons. I lived in Tokyo suburb and lives in Hokkaido right now, but I do not see many homes with EneFarm installed. In all honesty, it's more like a personal interest and satisfaction for installing something fancy in their homes. Unless one knows that they will not move for rest of their life, I don't think it's something worth installing it, not to mention their initial cost.
     
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