As Taiwan attempts to dramatically transform its power generation systems away from nuclear and coal-fired power plants and towards a cleaner system centered around renewable, an important technology seems to have been ignored: fuel cells.
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel such as hydrogen, natural gas, or biogas into electricity through a chemical reaction. Likened to a battery that can be refueled, fuel cells can use a variety of fuels and materials to generate electricity, and can be used either at a fixed site or for motorized transport. The potential for hydrogen fuel cells is particularly attractive, as the only waste produced is water. But since hydrogen doesn’t exist in a free state in nature, and must be created from methane or water vapor, such cells are still not cost effective and are overly energy intense.
Fuel cells have been around for a long time – the concept was first proven in 1839 – and the technology got a big boost from the NASA space programs, which deployed fuel cells due to their safety and reliability.
A number of different fuel-cell technologies employing different materials and using different fuel sources currently exist, but a major challenge to their broader acceptance was their need for expensive platinum and other precious materials, which drove up costs. With the development of solid oxide fuel cells, costs have been lowered and fuel cells such as the Bloom Energy Server now offer a cost-effective, clean, safe, and reliable technology appropriate for scaling up for institutional users. Solid oxide fuel cells use ceramic plates as catalysts, and natural gas, biogas, or a related substance as a fuel.
Fuel cells provide a number of advantages over current power-generating technologies.
First, because they rely on direct electrochemical reactions without combustion, they are freed from the thermodynamic constraints that limit most other conventional power sources. Conventional coal plants operate at only around 33% efficiency, while even the most advanced combined-cycle natural gas plants max out at around 55% conversion efficiency. Fuel cells, by contrast, exceed 60%. This means that fuel cells generate more power while wasting less. Fuel cells are fuel flexible and can readily use biofuels, enabling them to be completely carbon-neutral.
As fuel cells operate without combustion, they likewise generate far fewer pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC), and particulate matter, which are emitted in huge quantities by Taiwan’s coal-heavy power supply with severe public health ramifications, particularly for children.
Large-scale fossil fuel power plants cost millions of US dollars, require intense and wide-ranging regulatory approval, and take years of construction time to complete. Renewable energies such as solar PV and offshore wind, meanwhile, face significant hurdles. In Taiwan, where space is at a premium, solar PV farms compete with agriculture for available land, while offshore wind is a mammoth undertaking that is still in its infancy and will take years before starting to generating power.
Fuel cells, by contrast, can be easily installed as modular, scalable units. A 700W fuel cell system is quiet, has no moving parts, and can be installed onsite, requiring little land and no extensive and expensive transmission grid. In Taiwan, around 5% of power generation is lost through transmission, but with onsite fuel cell power generation, this is reduced to zero. And as they can be easily scaled, fuel cells can provide power for consumers from individual homes to major industrial plants, as well as Taiwan’s outlying islands which now rely on expensive and dirty diesel generators.
Also, as solar and wind power generate electricity only when the sun shines and the wind blows, Taiwan will need to have a very smart grid indeed to handle huge influxes of solar energy – for example during noontime – which will shortly fade to nothing as the day wanes. Fuel cells, by contrast, offer steady, 24/7 guaranteed power generation that the grid can rely on, offering a safe and clean complement to renewable energy.
Conventional power plants also require vast amounts of water, with coal plants using some 58.2 million gallons of water per 200 kW annually, and even combined-cycle natural gas plants use 420,000 gallons per 200 kW every year. Huge water consumption is a tremendous strain on water-strapped Taiwan, where droughts are becoming increasingly frequent. Fuel cells, by contrast, use almost no water.
In many parts of the world, fuel cells are recognized as a green and clean energy source that generates decentralized power reliably and without the costly impacts of conventional power generation. In Taiwan, however, fuel cells are not afforded the same measure of awareness, despite the fact that many of the most crucial parts of the Bloom Energy Server – including the interconnector – are made right here in Taiwan.
Porite Taiwan Chairman Chu Chiu-Lung says that Bloom searched worldwide for a manufacturer with the necessary production acumen and a shared commitment to quality and integrity, and found this partner in Porite Taiwan. Now Porite Taiwan is Bloom’s exclusive manufacturer for its most valuable IP components, which it manufactures in its Miaoli plant and then ships to Sunnyvale, California for assembly into fuel cells.
These fuel cells are now operating in some of the largest – and greenest – American companies, including Apple, Google, Walmart, Coca-Cola, and Target. Bloom has installed several hundred megawatts of fuel cells in less than a decade, and the market is only getting stronger.
As Taiwan deals with increasing demands on its power supply and shortfalls in capacity, fuel cells offer a green, safe, reliable alternative that is Made in Taiwan.