Hydrogen gen-sets open new hydrogen economy

Joe Huley, Ballard Power Systems

Standby and grid-tied generator-sets will play an increasingly important role in providing electric power into a centralized electric power distribution system. The many changes brought on by electric power deregulation, an aging electric power generation and transmission, and the need for clean, efficient and safe distributed power generators make this technology vital for the future. Using stand by and grid-tied gen-sets at the end user location can benefit the user as well as the electric power utility by reducing the distribution losses, cost of distribution, and cost of developing new distribution systems.

Clean, high quality, distributed energy resources (DER) that can seamlessly connect to the power grid are in increasing demand. Today’s popularity of solid state devices used in both industrial drive and automotive power systems has lifted power electronics into the electrical power generation arena. The universal power converter provides smooth regulated output with a fast transient response capability. The power converter’s modular architecture, patented control algorithms and user-friendly interface software, creates a single power conversion platform that readily interfaces to both ac and dc renewable energy sources and stand-by power generation for DER and premium power applications. (See figure.) Photovoltaics, microturbines, fuel cells, wind turbines, flywheels, batteries and hydrogen and natural gas internal combustion engines (ICEs) can be integrated to the power converter to establish the direct power connection to the electric power grid.

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Hydrogen’s promise
Automobile companies recognize the need to move away from today’s fossil fuels. Hydrogen holds the promise of replacing the polluting and diminishing fossil fuels. Continued government pressure to reduce automobile emissions and improve fuel economy is driving the transportation industry toward alternative energy sources with hydrogen holding the most promise for powering internal combustion engines (ICEs) and fuel cells.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is supporting a wide range of funded programs dedicated to hydrogen and fuel cell research and development. Current DOE programs are based on the availability of hydrogen fueled vehicles in the US market as early as 2005. The DOE has developed a model which outlines the transition to a hydrogen economy by 2030. The use of hydrogen in distributed power systems parallels the developments in the transportation sector. Hydrogen ICEs are now being used to power hydrogen gen-sets.

In an internal combustion engine (ICE), hydrogen burns efficiently without creating carbon based emissions. Hydrogen’s potential is remarkable, but it will be achieved only if today’s limited distribution channels are improved. While alternative fossil based fuels (ethanol, propane and natural gas) develop lower pollution signatures, hydrogen holds the key to increasing U.S. energy independence. The common notion that hydrogen is a hazardous gas and managing it is difficult is not true. Today technology is available that will allow hydrogen to be as safe as gasoline or natural gas.

Ballard introduced a new hydrogen fueled internal combustion (IC) driven generator set in August 2002. The new hydrogen gen-set is rated at 125 kW at various voltage levels and phase choices ranging from 120 Vac to 480 Vac at 60 Hz. (Other models at various power levels up to 250 kW will be introduced in the future.) The hydrogen gen-set uses the cleanest fuel in a power efficient configuration. The introduction of this new class of gen-sets will accelerate the development of a hydrogen distribution and delivery infrastructure.

The use of hydrogen in today’s gen-set products is the bridge between today’s distributed power products and tomorrow’s fuel cell based products. The development of the hydrogen gen-sets will create an increased demand for hydrogen and a resultant expansion of the hydrogen supply and distribution infrastructure. The hydrogen gen-set will enable fuel cell manufacturers to establish a market presence in the power products business while the fuel cell continues its journey to mass production.

Huley is the director of power generation for Ballard Power Systems, based in Dearborn, Mich. He is responsible for commercial fuel cell, hydrogen and natural gas generator sets, and power conversion systems. More information on Ballard can be found at www.ballard.com.

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