– 8 February 2010 – Australian homes may soon be able to buy fuel cell technology and save up to $1100 off their energy bills each year through Australian company Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd, a publicly listed company that was spun out of a CSIRO technology and now has 90 staff in its Melbourne headquarters with a factory in Germany and ceramic powder factory in the UK.

In this article Brendan Dow, the company’s managing director, explains the potential –

Australian homeowners will shortly be able to produce their own electricity on-site, from natural gas, with major reduction of  their home’s carbon footprint.

The BlueGen unit – a gas-to-electricity generation system about the size of a small dishwasher which contains a stack of ceramic fuel cells – is currently being trialled at a sustainable home in VicUrban’s Aurora development at Epping North in Melbourne.

It will be available to Australian consumers in the next few months through green retailer Neco.  BlueGen units have already been sold in Germany, The Netherlands and Japan.

In the home (or other buildings) the BlueGen unit connects to the existing gas inlet and the hot water system. Air and gas is fed into the unit and a chemical reaction takes place, producing both electricity and heat.

Over the course of a year each BlueGen unit can produce about 17,000 kilowatt hours of electricity – more than twice the power needed for an average Australian home. Surplus electricity can be sold back to the power grid and it can offset more carbon than a similar sized photo-voltaic unit. (1)

The heat by-product is enough to produce 200 litres of hot water each day.

BlueGen’s production of both electricity and heat gives it an efficiency of 85 per cent, making it the most efficient power generation system of its kind in the world. Conversely, electricity derived from brown coal is about 25 per cent efficient (75 per cent of the energy produced is lost as heat at the power station or in the transmission and distribution of the electricity).

The BlueGen technology uses 95 per cent less water than coal-fired power stations and when deployed in volume can generate electricity 40 per cent cheaper than the current retail price.

The average Australian home using BlueGen could save more than $1000 off its annual energy bill, as well as reducing its carbon footprint by up to 18 tonnes per year.

Australia’s fuel cell technology – creating low-emission baseload power from natural gas and fuel cells – came out of CSIRO in the early 1990s. Ceramic Fuel Cells has invested more than $250 million to develop it further.

In Australia, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 12 per cent between 1990 and 2006. Australia produces 23 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per year – four times the world average. Summer peak demand for electricity is increasing by 5 per cent a year.

Currently, coal-fired power stations produce up to 95 per cent of some Australian states’ electricity requirements. If BlueGen units were to replace just 7 per cent of Victoria’s electricity from brown coal – for example – the state would achieve the Federal Government’s target of a 5 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions well before 2020.

Australia’s current reliance on coal is proving expensive. In March last year a report prepared for the Energy Networks Association estimated that the upgrading of ageing transmission and distribution networks to cope with increased peak demand for air-conditioners will cost Australia $283 million per year for 20 years – a total cost of $5.6 billion. This cost will be passed on to consumers via electricity bills.

Extraordinarily, 10 per cent of this centralised network capacity is built to cater for about three days per year – on very hot days when air conditioners are in high demand.

Progressive governments around the world are realising that the future of electricity production does not lie in a centralised system based on brown coal but an extensive network of smaller, distributed low emission energy generators, such as fuel cells.

An analogy is the transition of the computer industry from mainframe computers many years ago to laptops, the internet and mobile phones today.
Already progressive foreign governments are promoting the take-up of distributed fuel cell technology.

In the UK such systems attract lower taxes and accelerated tax depreciation. The UK Government announced last month that a feed-in tariff (a premium rate paid for electricity fed back into the electricity grid from designated electricity generation sources) would apply from 1 April 2010 for small low-emission electricity generators, including fuel cells running on natural gas.

Germans receive a capital subsidy of up to 3300 euros for a 2 kilowatt unit, as well as a feed-in tariff. In Japan Osaka Gas has already identified 1.1 million households suitable for fuel cell technology in the Kansai region.

In Australia there are no feed-in tariffs available for fuel cell technology because it n not considered renewable.

Ceramic Fuel Cells has asked the Federal Government to create a low-emissions energy target similar to the renewable energy scheme, for technologies that have much lower emissions than the current grid.

The Australian coalition announced this week in its climate policy – Direct Action on the Environment and Climate Change – that it would consider rebates for ceramic fuel cells.

(1) BlueGen can offset more more carbon than a similar sized photo-voltaic array:

*    A 2kW solar PV will generate about 2500 kWh per year and offset
about 3 tonnes of CO2 (in Victoria).

*    A 2kW fuel cell unit can generate up to 17,000 kWh per year and
offset just under 18 tonnes of CO2 each year (compared to Victorian brown
coal, and assuming the unit is run at maximum output all year)

*    Even though the fuel cell uses natural gas, the carbon savings
are much higher because over the year it provides all the power the home
needs – and more.  The solar PV home still relies on coal fired power.
There are also no nitrous oxide or sulphur dioxide emissions from the fuel
cell.