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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fuel Cells for Homeowners

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s George Homsy reports on a company outside of Albany, New York, that wants to put a personal power plant in every home. Plug Power is developing a fuel cell that will convert natural gas into heat and electricity. Not only will the new fuel cell protect homeowners from the vagaries of the electric grid, but it is virtually pollution-free.


CURWOOD: Some people dream of making their homes energy self-sufficient. And the latest path to a personal power plant is a residential fuel cell, a device which combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, hot water, and heat. Scientists at Plug Power in Latham, New York, say the units they are developing will be reliable, and will also cut energy costs while reducing the amount of greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere. To refine their design, the company is testing a fuel cell in an employee's home. Living on Earth's George Homsy stopped in for a visit. ACKER: Let me show you around.

HOMSY: Plug Power Vice President William Acker leads me through the side door of a modest suburban ranch.

ACKER: As you can see in the kitchen here, we have a microwave oven,refrigerator, electric oven, electric range top. We have a window air conditioner in the dining area here. (Air conditioner goes on.)

HOMSY: How much power does this house use? ACKER: On average it uses between one and two kilowatts of electricity. And that's fairly standard for a home.

HOMSY: But the power source for this home is anything but standard. This is the first house in the nation to generate its own power from a battery-like device called a fuel cell. Mr. Acker shows me the prototype located in the shed outside.


ACKER: This is the Plug Power 7000.

HOMSY: Whining quietly in the corner is a blue box about the size of two refrigerators. This fuel cell produces up to seven kilowatts of power by mixing oxygen and hydrogen across a thin membrane. The resulting chemical reaction generates enough electricity to run every appliance in this home. This prototype gets its hydrogen from tanks in the back yard. Eventually, Mr. Acker says, the hydrogen will be converted from natural gas.

ACKER: When you operate this device on natural gas, the only things that come out of the device are water and some carbon dioxide. So, your environmental benefits are vast.

HOMSY: But environmental friendliness is not the fuel cell's only selling point, says Plug Power CEO Gary Middleman.

MIDDLEMAN: If all we were doing was cleaning up the environment with this device, we'd have a tough time getting it out there. The fact is, we're going to save people money at the same time.

HOMSY: The company estimates more than 25 million homes nationwide can save money using fuel cells to convert natural gas to electricity. Future models will capture the waste heat given off by this cell to heat rooms and hot water, making the units even more cost-effective. Assistant Secretary of Energy Dan Reicher supports fuel cells, but he doesn't think they'll become a dominant power source. Instead he expects them to be part of an energy mix, including solar and wind power, biomass, fossil fuel, and nuclear, that will make tomorrow's energy grid more reliable.

REICHER: What we're going to add is some resiliency to the grid. We're going to add some diversity to the grid. We are not so completely dependent upon very large power stations that can be disrupted by any number of natural and manmade factors.

HOMSY: Plug Power expects to start selling its fuel cells in the year 2001. Earlier this year, the appliance giant General Electric signed an exclusive contract to sell the fuel cells worldwide. For Living on Earth, I'm George Homsy in Latham, New York.



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