The emerging Age of Gas, the rise of distributed power and technological innovation will accelerate the adoption of fuel cells into the global energy landscape over the next decade.
The future of power is now under development and it is packaged in stacks of fuel cells. As the world’s energy needs increase, and calls for sustainability continue to rise, a number of forces are converging to expedite the adoption of fuel cells into the global energy mix.
In many ways, the adoption of fuel cells will mirror the renewable energy transition that has taken place over the last decade. Similar to the latter’s progression from niche applications to mainstream power technologies, fuel cells, too, are set to become a part of the global power portfolio in the decade ahead.
How does the technology work? Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in natural gas or hydrogen into electricity, heat and water through an electrochemical reaction with oxygen. While similar to batteries in structure, they rely upon an external fuel source instead of stored chemical reactants. Fuel cells are a form of power production that is modular, easily scalable, yields very low emissions, and is highly efficient.
Although there is approximately 570MW of installed fuel cell capacity across the globe today, expensive product costs have hindered greater industry growth. As explained in a paper, GE’s fuel cell technology, and specifically the process by which each individual fuel cell is manufactured, is poised to overcome this obstacle and spark future market growth.
The Age of Gas
After decades on the margin of the global power system, natural gas is shifting from a regional and marginal fuel to becoming a focal point of the global energy landscape. It now competes head-to-head with oil and coal, and complements wind and other renewable energy resources. At the global level, natural gas production and consumption is growing, in part because the land-based and seaborne networks that underpin the connection between supply and demand are becoming more diverse as they expand around the world. Gas network growth, coupled with technology innovation, is contributing to greater availability, delivery flexibility and improved economics. Natural gas fuel cells such as the FC-CC are poised to benefit from this emerging age of gas, which promises greater gas availability around the globe and more economically favorable gas prices.
The Rise of Distributed Power
The rise of distributed power is being driven by forces that are propelling the broader decentralization movement: distributed power technologies are more widely available; and they are smaller, more efficient and less costly today than they were just a decade ago. Distributed power systems have lower capital requirements and can be built, and become operational, faster and with less risk than large power plants or new transmission lines. GE expects annual distributed power capacity additions to grow from roughly 150 gigawatts (GW) per year today to 200 GW per year by 2020.
Stationary distributed power fuel cells will be a primary beneficiary as global power networks incorporate an increasing number of distributed generation technologies and migrate toward integrated power networks that contain a combination of both central and distributed power systems connected through sophisticated physical and digital networks.
The synergies created by broad and deep connections across global industries have helped spur fuel cell innovation. For example, thermal spraying techniques developed for GE’s Aviation and industrial gas turbine businesses are being reapplied to manufacture solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), opening the door to high volume, low cost manufacturing. These SOFCs can then be put together with technologies such as Ecomagination-certified GE Jenbacher gas engines to create a hybrid fuel cell system that we call the Fuel Cell-Combined Cycle (FC-CC). The engine replaces the conventional SOFC thermal oxidizer used in other designs, generating additional power. The result is projected electrical efficiency in the range of 60-65 percent — something that previously could only be achieved in large centralized power plants. GE is so excited about the FC-CC technology that it has created a nimble start-up, GE-Fuel Cells, to commercialize it.
In a world that is increasingly characterized by environmental constraints and a rising tide of natural disasters, FC-CC’s benefits — such as reduced environmental emissions, net water production, high efficiency, dispatchability and reliability — make it an ideal technology for today’s changing energy landscape and the power needs of tomorrow. Taken together, these trends tell us that the outlook for fuel cells is positive.
(Top GIF: Video courtesy of GE)