Fuel Cells As an Alternative to Solar Energy to Provide Power to the Home
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Fuel Cells As an Alternative to Solar Energy to Provide Power to the Home

This article was written as a response to the question:
Solid oxide fuel cells can increase the efficiency of converting natural gas and biomass gases, by 50 percent by electrochemical conversion rather than combustion, and reduce CO2 by 50 percent.

(Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Offer New Hope For Doubling The Efficiency Of Electrical Power Systems, While Reducing Their Carbon Emissions by Half)

In this article we will explore SOFCs (Solid Oxide Fuel Cells,) as an alternative to Solar Energy panels/ cells, for powering the home, and as an alternative to Solar Energy for commercial, and electric utility, power generation. The positive ramifications of implementing SOFC technology for the production of electrical power, could be far reaching, both on our planet's ecosystem, and on the world economy, while at the same time, achieving meaningfully improved use of our natural gas, and biomass gas energy resources.


Fuel cells have a long history, dating back to the early experimentation by Sir William Robert Grove, a Welsh scientist that developed a fuel cell stack of 1008 cells that could generate 15 kW of power, circa 1840. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs,) are solid state fuel cell systems, i.e., solid state fuel cells have solid electrodes, with a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid electrolyte, found in other fuel cell and battery systems. (ref 1)

Modern technical origins of solid oxide fuel cell technology, are dated to work done in the 1930s by Swiss scientist Emil Bauer and his colleague H. Pries. In the 1950s Westinghouse Electric compounds of zirconium (the same material used in the manufacture of cubic zirconium diamonds,) were experimented on, for use as potential solid state electrodes/ electrolytes.

The modern roots of solid oxide technology, applied to solid fuel cells, extend as far back as the late 1930s when Swiss scientists Emil Bauer and H. Preis worked to develop solid composites with various elements including, zirconium, yttrium, cerium, lanthanum, and or, tungsten as electrolytes. By the late 1950s, Westinghouse began experimenting with zirconium compounds in small-scale research for solid oxide fuel cell technology. Comparative solid fuel cell technology was also being conducted by General Electric, and by European research groups. (ref 2)

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell technology research was ultimately accelerated to meet the needs of NASA's Mars project. Although the NASA Mars SOFC project was ultimately cancelled, researchers continued to make improvement in the technology for eventual commercial use. (ref 3)

Today, Siemens, GE, Bloom Energy, and other companies (e.g., ClearEdge Power,) have taken modern SOFC technology, rooted in advancements and developments made in the NASA Mars project, to the precipice of widespread and commercially viable industrial and residential application. Siemens is a leader in the development of new high power density and high active area SOFCs, with greater efficiency and power generation, which will result in a variety of both small and large commercially viable, and more affordable SOFC systems, to serve the marketplace. (ref 2, 4)

To date, SOFC power systems have generated approximately $443 million in energy market share, and they are expected to reach $3 billion in the US alone by 2015. Siemens is developing commercial SOFC - GT electric power generating systems (Solid Oxide Fuel Cell - Gas Turbine.) SOFC - GT systems will produce power at efficiencies of 70% to 80% energy conversion or more. (ref 5, 6)

New industrial/ utility scale SOFC technologies:

SOFC - GT electric power systems, currently in development by Siemens, compares favorably (at >80% overall energy system efficiency,) with the efficiencies of coal powered electrical energy plants, at about 37% to 44% for new coal technologies, and about 50% to %54 for the latest NGCC (Natural Gas Combined Cycle,) electric power technologies. Natural gas combined cycle technologies, re-burn the waste gas from the initial burn cycle. (ref 5, 6)

SOFC technologies by themselves, can achieve upwards of 65% - 70% efficiency. The balance is lost as heat through water and steam conduction. When a SOFC is combined with steam turbine generators, utilizing the steam generated by the SOFC process, can achieve an additional 10% plus, energy conversion. (ref 6, 7)

CO2 emissions using SOFC - GT electric power systems, would be reduced to approximately 50% less, than that of conventional power technologies (about 340 g/ kW*hr.) Conventional coal, oil and single cycle natural gas power plants generate on the order of 740 to 770 g/ kW*hr. The reduction of CO2 achieved using SOFC - GT, is accomplished without the use of controversial and theoretical CCS (carbon dioxide capture and sequestration) process. (ref 8, 9)

New residential scale SOFC technologies:

Companies such as Bloom Energy and ClearEdge, among other companies, are targeting residential, commercial, and industrial "distributed generation" SOFC applications. Distributed generation means essentially that power is produced at the point of use.

Advantages of Bloom Energy's SOFCs, and that of many of its competitors distributed generation servers include:

1.) Clean, reliable, and affordable energy at the point of use.

2.) Energy dense power source using the foot print of a refrigerator.

3.) Clean efficient, electrochemical conversion of fuel.

4.) Reversible process, can generate and store power.

5.) Fuel Flexible (can run natural gas and directed biogas).

6.) Converts fuel to energy at nearly twice the efficiency of combustion.

7.) SOFCs are made from low cost, abundant sand like materials.

8.) Avoids the use of corrosive acids and conserve the use of precious metals.

9.) Power controlled at the point of use, directly by the consumer.

Bloom Energy's servers range from 25 kW units to 100 kW and greater for residential and commercial use. 100 kW units can power the base load needs of 100 average homes. On “60 Minutes,” ebay CEO John Donahoe, stated that on a weekly basis, the five Bloom boxes they installed and run on biomass gas, generate five times as much power on a weekly basis, than the 3,000 solar cells that are installed on the roofs of the company’s buildings.

ClearEdge power sells a SOFC 5 kW unit that can power a single home or small business for roughly the same cost as a comparable solar panel installation, with several current energy savings credits offered by the federal government. Bloom Energy has goal of marketing a residential unit that can power a single home for around $5,000 US in five to ten years. (ref 4, 10, 11)

SOFCs as an alternative to Solar Energy:

Principal advantages to solar energy technology as an energy source include: It is a renewable source of energy; There is no noise or chemical pollution, including CO2; It has been shown to be a useful adjunct or replacement for conventional residential power generation. Additionally, its simple elegance and practical utility in climate appropriate areas, make it an attractive and common sense power supplement or replacement, for residential and small business applications, provided costs are reduced.

Disadvantages of Solar Energy at present include: Cost; Much lower energy conversion efficiency (roughly 20% to reports of 40% for complex prototypes in development); And a much lower energy density. Because of the large foot print, or amount of surface area, solar cell panels require for operation at present, the total amount of energy solar panels can produce for a given facility's power needs, i.e., for "distributed generation" applications, is rate limited, particularly for urban residential applications. Additionally, solar energy production will vary with weather, or the amount of sunshine available.


Based on the positive developments detailed in the references generated for this writing, and based on their present scales of economy, along with the known limitations of both Solar and SOFC technologies, it appears that the development of each of these energy alternatives should be intensified, and accelerated. A concerted effort should be made on the part of industry and government, to significantly reduce the cost, and further perfect the efficiencies, and reliability, of each of these two burgeoning alternative energy resources.

As a result, educated consumers would then heartily embrace these two energy resource saving, and eco-friendly energy alternatives, once they are made truly affordable to individual small business and residential consumers alike. Combined with affordability, setting a goal of a five year horizon for return on investment, is also warranted. A five year ROI or less, would provide a realistic and meaningful incentive, from the stand point of the average consumer.

Growing economic and impending environmental needs, along with finite world energy resources, dictate that we must transition our world's economy and ecosystem, away from the current and relatively inefficient, and dirty combustion of fossil fuels, as a primary source of our energy needs, towards cleaner, more efficient, and more renewable energy sources. Every clean, practical and viable energy alternative, that can be brought to market on its economic, ecological, and energy producing merits, should be given a chance to contribute, as part of a "holistic" solution to this monumental global task.

With the looming spectre of rechargeable electric automobiles being produced en masse across the globe, the demand on electricity supplies in the future, may very well necessitate the intelligent development of all commercially viable, and eco-friendly, forms of electric power for homes and businesses, going forward.

Written by JJ Haugh, copyright 2010, first published on Factoidz.com

Reference 1:


Reference 2:


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Reference 4:


Reference 5:

World Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Market to Reach $443 Million by 2010


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Reference 8:

Benefits and Feature of SOFC


Reference 9:

Conversion plan to CCGT and clean coal technologies: a path towards energy efficiency


Reference 10:


Reference 11:

Will Bloom box replace power grid?


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