Energy Alert for June 17, 2015

In a recent issue, we noted that the battery industry is poised for growth as both utilities and their customers look for ways to store energy for use when demand is high or the electric grid fails. Battery tech is advancing and costs are falling, but batteries are far from the only viable way to store energy or provide backup power in emergencies. Two other approaches — one novel and one traditional — are also making strides.

Hydrogen Power

Fuel cells have long held the tantalizing prospect of providing abundant and clean energy. By combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity (and water as a by-product), fuel cells emit no greenhouse gases or pollutants; they run silently; and, unlike batteries, they can be “recharged” quickly by adding more hydrogen.

But logistics have long hampered fuel cells. Though hydrogen is the most abundant element, very little of it exists in pure, elemental form. So providing the fuel for fuel cells means extracting hydrogen from other molecules, such as the methane in natural gas, and then transporting pure hydrogen to where it’s needed. And with very little infrastructure in place to move the hydrogen, fuel cells can’t be used in many places.

However, fuel cell makers such as Plug Power of Latham, N.Y., are gradually starting to overcome that obstacle by improving the shipping of hydrogen to customers who like the idea of using efficient, emissions-free fuel cells but traditionally haven’t been able to procure the hydrogen to power them. Plug Power installs its fueling dispensers and other gear on-site and trucks in hydrogen as needed.

So far, that strategy is catching on with big retailers such as Walmart and Kroger, which are switching over to fuel cells from Plug Power to operate forklifts at their distribution centers. Forklifts so equipped can run almost constantly, says Plug Power president Andy Marsh, allowing for more-efficient operation than battery-powered forklifts, which have to either recharge for hours or swap out batteries to keep going. Turning to hydrogen isn’t cheap, but for large industrial sites that can fuel hundreds of forklifts from a central location, the economies of scale can pay off.

Clearly, warehouse forklifts represent a fairly small and specialized market for fuel cell adoption. But Marsh sees expansion possibilities elsewhere. One juicy market he’s targeting: Next-generation cell phone towers, coming on line in a few years, that will need a portable energy source because they won’t be connected to the electric grid.

Meanwhile, cars powered by fuel cells are quietly making some inroads in the electric car market, even as batteries get most of the attention. The basic knock on battery-powered cars — that they can’t drive very far before needing a lengthy recharge — doesn’t apply to fuel-cell-powered vehicles, or FCVs. A quick hydrogen fill-up allows for hundreds of miles of emissions-free driving.

If you can find a hydrogen fueling station, that is. Such stations are starting to pop up in California, which has led Toyota to prepare the first FCV you’ll be able to buy in America. Called the Mirai, it’s a compact sedan with a driving range of up to 300 miles, running on hydrogen in a carbon fiber tank that Toyota calls “durable” and “incredibly solid” (probably to assure potential buyers that the car won’t go the way of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg zeppelin).

With enough hydrogen fueling stations (California is shooting to have 100 by 2020), the Mirai or a car like it could be the anti-Tesla electric car: One you can refuel in five minutes from a pump and then drive across a medium-size state without being afraid of getting stranded with a dead battery. As an added bonus, Toyota says the onboard fuel cell could even act as an emergency power source for a home during blackouts. (It’s not yet clear if that feature will be available on U.S. models.)

Backup Power, the Old-Fashioned Way

Of course, there’s a far simpler way to power your home or business during a blackout: An emergency generator. Small, portable units running on gasoline can keep the lights on in a pinch, and larger, stationary generators burning propane or natural gas can power your whole building automatically when grid power goes down.

Sales of emergency generators have been a bit soft lately, says Clement Feng of Generac, a major generator supplier. But that’s largely due to the absence of major hurricanes and associated blackouts in recent years, he adds; folks who haven’t dealt with that headache in a while tend to be less eager to invest in a generator. It takes only “one big storm” to ramp up demand, says Feng.

Meanwhile, Generac is doing brisk business selling large, trailer-mounted generators fueled by natural gas to oil drillers. Well-site equipment requires a lot of electricity, and gas-fired generators are a good solution in the many parts of the oil patch where natural gas comes up the well as a by-product of oil production. Much of that gas has traditionally been flared off as a waste product, even as drillers hauled in costly diesel to run pump jacks and other gear.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we spoke with Jim Baugher of online power equipment retailer Power Equipment Direct to find out what folks should know if they are in the market for a generator (as many in the Northeast were when Sandy took down much of the grid).

Among his recommendations:

  • Have an electrician assess the power needs of your home or business so you can buy a generator that handles the job without going overboard. An electrician can also install the wiring needed to automatically route the generator’s power to essential equipment — your fridge or furnace, say — without having to run extension cables.
  • If buying a portable unit, you’ll want one with pneumatic wheels for easier movement; a battery for easy start-up; and a voltage regulator. If you’re interested in a large, stationary backup unit, first consult a building inspector to make sure your intended site won’t run afoul of local building codes.

Generator costs can vary substantially, depending on your power needs. Generac’s Feng says buying and installing Generac’s largest standby generator — a 22-kilowatt unit — generally runs $7,000 to $8,000. The company’s smallest standby model puts out 7 kilowatts and costs about $1,900 before installation.