Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Getting off of the Grid

The current electrical grid system is being challenged by the idea of fuel cells. Fuel cells convert chemical energy to electrical energy through various chemical reactions. There are many benefits to installing and implementing these fuel cells. Environmentally, fuel cells are much better than the current electrical grid because they emit far fewer criteria pollutants and create very little noise. The fact that they do not emit many emissions, let alone far fewer criteria pollutants is very impressive. With nearly no noise created by fuel cells, power plants or even individual cells for homes could be located closer to cities and communities, which reduce the distance that the energy would have to travel to be utilized. Fuel cells are also relatively efficient in producing energy, roughly between 30 and 60% efficient when used without other fuel systems. When paired with a gas turbine, efficiency increases to over 70%. When the byproduct of heat is reentered into the system, efficiency of the fuel cell can reach 85%. Fuel cells release heat as a byproduct, which can be used in different processes that include boilers, domestic hot water, space heating loops, swimming pools, and absorption cooling thermal loads. Fuel cells are also much more reliable than the current methods for energy production. They are less subject to interruptions, such as storms or power failures. Power plants with fuel cells can produce the same quality of energy as contemporary energy systems. They are easy to permit and do not require air permits since there are nearly no emissions. Fuel cells are very modular and operate at constant efficiencies. Overall, fuel cells look pretty darn good.

However, there are some downsides to using fuel cells as a main source of energy. Fuel cells are very expensive and require large initial investments to use. A lot of work is going into decreasing these costs to make the fuel cell more competitive with other energy sources. Fuel cells also heavily rely on hydrogen as its main input which is obtained from natural gas and other fossil fuels. By allowing more fuels to be used to run these cells will allow for costs to go down and for less dependence on just one kind of fuel that might not always be available. Integrating the fuel cells into our current grid system is a major challenge for researchers and promoters. The grid is very established and changing it will cost a lot of money. Also, fuel infrastructure and human infrastructure has to change to be able to handle and supply this kind of energy. The government will also have some issues trying to figure out how to regulate fuel cells so that they are safe and produced properly.

It's crazy to think that UCI is the leader of fuel cell research and other outstanding sustainability research. We are the first school with hydrogen fuel cell buses that emit no carbon emissions. We are also the only school to offer a graduate course on fuel cells. It's also great that Orange County is stepping up its game and investing and implementing fuel cells to reduce emissions. Orange County is a leader in air quality standards and strive to reduce emissions to preserve the air.

A question I have is how long can one fuel cell last?

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