To many people, the energy debate ends with the introduction of the fuel
cell. This new device is capable of generating electricity with zero emissions
and very little noise pollution. However, affordable residential fuel
cells are still many years away. There are many options available today
that are not receiving the attention they should be getting.
Fuel cells research started as early as 1839. It is hardly a new concept;
however, research has been painfully slow to keep up with coal, natural
gas, and nuclear energy. As a result, the United States is powered with
hydro, solar, wind, biomass, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants.
One of the worries about early fuel cells is that the energy required
to create a supply of pure hydrogen will take electricity. This electricity
must come from a pre-existing source of power. As a result, the "green
consumer" who uses a fuel cell may actually be polluting the environment
with decidedly non-"green" coal (Ogden
1). However, this problem shouldn't last for too long; scientists
are working on ways to capture hydrogen with few emissions.
More information on the workings of the fuel cell are available in the
Fuel Cells section.
Solar Power + Fuel Cells
One popular way is via solar power. A company called Ecosoul is developing
a "Reversible Fuel Cell Kit" for educational use. The kit includes
a solar panel, an electric motor, and a reversible fuel cell (RFC).
Add water, and the device extracts hydrogen from the sun, creating electricity
and water (Ecosoul
1). This is the best way to go, as the only output is water. Much
of the energy efficiency of using fuel cells comes from using this water;
as most cells must operate at very high temperatures (from hundreds to
thousands of degrees Fahrenheit), it makes sense to use the fuel cell
as both an electrical generator and as a heating unit.
At first, the most common source of energy using fuel cells is likely
to be natural gas and other existing chemicals. The fuel cell is up to
80% energy efficient in its electricity generation, which means that it
will get more energy out of fuels like methanol, methane, and natural
gas. While emissions won't be eliminated using these fuels, the energy
efficiency alone (80% compared to 15-20% for an internal combustion engine,
assuming the fuel cell is used for heating as well as electricity) is
reason enough to switch to fuel cells (AEP
Energy conservation does not end with finding new generation technologies.
Intelligent load-shifting is a technology rarely discussed but nearly
complete. A building equipped with load-shifting technologies keeps its
energy consumption low during the day and allows it to consume more energy
at night, when the rates are lower. Heating and air conditioning systems
communicate with each other, determining the most efficient place to heat
or cool a building to save money but keep the inhabitants happy (Lighting
"Agents" - zones of a building - will automatically place electronic
"bids" with the climate control system. Who wins the bids depends
on the number of inhabitants for the zone, which zone is getting more
sun, and many other factors. The winner of one of these bids will get
to change the rate of cooling/heating in its zone. Several bids occur
each minute as the system keeps the building at a constant temperature.
Lighting control is another responsibility of the system. The agents watch
the occupancy of rooms, turning on and off lights as appropriate. On sunny
days, the agent may dim the lights in a room (Lighting
The pitfall for this type of system is the money required for its purchase
and upkeep. Costs range from $50-$300 per zone, plus the expense of having
a trained worker monitor the system. The costs may dissolve quickly, however;
the Metra Corporation saved 25 percent on its utilities. According to
the Center for Analysis and Dissemination of Demonstrated Energy Technologies,
companies can expect to see 30-50 percent drops in their utility bills
using the systems (Lighting
Some bright thinking can also save a lot of money. Look at the Chet Holifield
Federal Building in Laguna Niguel, CA. In March of 1994, the building
received new fan motors, a new air distribution system, the hot water
pumps were upgraded, and energy efficient lighting was installed. At the
heart of the project was a new thermal energy system, which cools water
at night, when the costs are lowest, and uses the chilled water to cool
the building over the next day. This saves the owners $640,000 annually
on heating costs. Gas use was reduced, and the costs of the project -
$4.2 million dollars - will be absorbed in 7 years. More information on
this project is available here.
Stepping aside from fuel cells, however, much can be done to save energy
in the intrim through the use of efficient lighting. Fluorescent lighting
ballasts were developed in the 50s, and lamps were further researched
into the late 1970s. Early bulbs sold for around $15 apiece in the 1980s,
which was prohibitive for early residential consumers. The US Government
and utilities companies helped out by purchasing large quantities of fluorescent
bulbs to promote efficiency in their buildings (Lighting
a Revolution 4). As a result, the fluorescent light companies made
a bigger profit and the cost of lighting came down for consumers.
Fluorescent lighting is proof that the US Government can provide funding
for and achieve success with energy conservation. Government energy research
and development peaked at $6.7 billion dollars in 1979. Total energy R&D
(among government, public, and private investors) peaked in 1980 at $11.6
billion dollars. Energy R&D funding reached an all-time low in 1996
with $4 billion devoted to research (USA
It's obvious what must be done. If we are to find a safe, efficient, reliable
source of energy for the future, the US Government must assist scientists
in their endeavor to perfect the fuel cell. If it worked for the fluorescent
light bulb, it can work for the fuel cell. Time is not of the essence;
we have 50 years before we risk running out of one of our fossil fuels.
However, for every year that passes without solving the energy problem,
massive amounts of coal will continue to be pumped into our skies. We
can do better.