0 Starting point. An introduction to the concept of the fuel cell and what it means to society. Some alternative energy technologies are introduced; solar energy and intelligent load-balancing are discussed. A look at global warming, and the sensationalism that often surrounds it. What are the truths about global warming, and what is merely hot air? Surface temperature and sea levels are discussed. A history of fuel cells and a look at their inner workings. A more detailed look into various energy sources, with links and helpful insights into the energy sources of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Links to the finest energy source resources in the world. Use these to get started on your quest to building the solar home of the future, or as a research tool in your quest to find new renewable energy sources. Concluding remarks; what can we do to preserve energy and fossil fuels while we wait for fuel cells to come to fruition?
 Fuel Cells and Energy Conservation Techniques
I. Introduction
II. Fuel Cells
III. Solar Power + Fuel Cells
IV. Intelligent Devices
V. Fluorescent Lighting
VI. Conclusion


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

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 1).

Intelligent Devices

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 Futures 1).

"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 Futures 3).

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 Futures 5).

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.

Fluorescent Lighting

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 Analysis 1).


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.

Last Modified 2 December, 2001 22:16
©2001 Samuel Shaw