Fuel cells can help battle climate change

At their recent Ottawa Summit, the “Three Amigos” –Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Barack Obama, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto—committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent no later than 2025, principally by shifting to low- and zero-carbon power generation.  Implicit in this commitment is a diminished use of coal to generate electricity.

In fact, coal use for power generation has been falling steadily in America.  Whereas a decade ago coal-fired power plants produced 51 percent of the nation’s electricity, today the share is closer to 33 percent and the Energy Information Administration recently forecast that coal for power generation will be largely phased out by 2040. 

{mosads}Fortunately, new technologies are evolving that can reduce carbon emissions significantly, most notably “fuelcells.”  Put simply, a fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity through an electrochemical reaction.  Because the byproducts are only water and heat, there are no carbon emissions.

Small scale fuel cells have been used by some automobile manufacturers for more than a decade.  Toyota, Hyundai and Honda currently sell vehicles that combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity which powers the motor.  But unlike battery electric vehicles, fuel cell cars boast driving ranges comparable to those of gasoline or diesel vehicles, 200 to 300 miles.  Average mileage for fuel cell cars is 58 compared to 23 for gasoline powered cars. Refueling can be done in less than 10 minutes whereas it can take several hours to recharge a battery powered vehicle. The only negative, at present, is the limited number of fueling stations selling pressurized hydrogen.

Despite being zero emissions vehicles, battery and fuel cell cars comprise less than one percent of automobiles currently on the road.  The real promise for using fuel cells to lower carbon emissions lies in the power generation industry, which is by far the largest emitter of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.  To that end, a number of energy companies are boosting investments in large-scale fuel cell technology to produce electricity for the power grid.

For example, Exxon Mobil recently announced an agreement with FuelCell Energy, a Connecticut company whose fuel cells are already generating electricity at 50 locations around the world.  Under the agreement with Exxon, FuelCell Energy will utilize its technology at fossil fuel power plants to isolate and compress carbon dioxide while producing enough power to more than compensate for the energy cost of capturing and sequestering the carbon. 

Exxon believes that a 500-megawatt power plant with fuel cells could generate 120 megawatts of additional power compared with a loss of 50 megawatts of power using conventional carbon capture technology.  Importantly, using fuel cells at the growing number of natural gas fired power plants could reduce CO2 emissions by more than 90 percent.

Though “Keep it in the ground!” environmental activists are calling for an immediate and total shift to renewable power such as wind and solar, this is neither economically nor technically feasible.  Despite the huge increase in wind and solar investments over the past decade, these sources account for only five percent of America’s power generating capacity.  Even if we could shift quickly to renewable sources, gas-fired peaking units would be required to maintain grid integrity when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

Matching up fuel cells with power plants can confer tremendous environmental benefits down the road.  As generation continues to shift away from coal and towards natural gas, fuel cells will not only dramatically reduce CO2 emissions but will also be combined with power plants burning a less carbon-intensive fuel.

Bernard L. Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.


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