‘Electricity in a box’ could bring power to many

The Associated Press
Saturday November 18, 2000

A machine the size of an office copier could one day bring heat and light to thousands of homes in the West at locations so remote they’re out of reach of electrical transmission lines. 

Fuel cells, essentially batteries that don’t go dead, run on oxygen and hydrogen and have the potential to replace wood stoves, noisy generators and kerosene lamps for those living off the grid. 

A half-century ago, the electrification of Washington was so limited that some 80 percent of the state geographically relied on alternative sources of energy, something known as distributed generation, said Greg Smith, vice president of generation for Energy Northwest, which operates the region’s only nuclear power plant, 10 miles north of here. “What goes around comes around,” he says. “The future of electricity, at least for residential customers, may be where we’re going back to.” 

Energy Northwest, a public power consortium of 13 utilities, is participating in a Bonneville Power Administration test of Bend, Ore.-based IdaTech’s fuel cells. 

The Energy Northwest fuel cell has a steady-state capacity of three kilowatts and can handle peak loads of about five kilowatts – the power demand of an average home. 

Fueled with methanol, it is supposed to last indefinitely, although that’s still to be determined. 

The first-generation fuel cell has had some reliability problems with automatic shutdowns, but “it’s very close to being a very practical device,” says Stan Davison, a resource development specialist for Energy Northwest. 

The second generation of fuel cells from IdaTech, a subsidiary of Boise-based Idacorp, are expected to be ready for testing early next year, and BPA has said it will work with utilities to place some in homes. 

At $25,000 each, these machines are not yet priced for most homeowners. But the cost per unit is expected to drop eventually to the $5,000 to $7,000 range. 

BPA, a federal power marketing agency in Portland, Ore., calls these experimental fuel cells “electricity in a box,” a clean, green form of energy with potential for residential and small commercial use. 

“BPA sees the future of generation will probably have a lot of distributed generation,” says Tom Osborn, a mechanical engineer for the agency. 

Survivalists and people with mountain homes aren’t the only likely customers. Fuel cells could provide backup power for farms, small businesses and enterprises such as hospitals, which could be thrown into chaos without electricity. 

In the power generation realm, Osborn compares the fuel cell’s place to that of cellular phones in telecommunications. While just about everyone has a land line telephone, a lot of people use cell phones as well. In China, notably, he says, people who had lived for years without phone lines to their homes went straight to cell service. 


Smith says the green aspect of fuel cells may attract some customers, even at costs 25 percent to 30 percent above big-generation rates. 

The first fuel cell was built in 1839, but serious interest in it as an electricity generator began in the 1960s with NASA’s Apollo space program. 

Fuel cells will probably never be able to make electricity cheaper than large-scale projects such as hydropower dams and even nuclear power plants. 

“Distributed generation will probably never be less expensive,” Smith says. “It’s cheaper to make it in large quantities.” 

In terms of capital investments, the fuel cell has an installed cost of $8,333 per kilowatt, compared with $3,500 per kilowatt at the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and $600 per kilowatt at the most efficient combined-cycle combustion turbine plants. 

Gravity hydroelectric projects are even cheaper because falling water is free. 

Fuel cells could one day help utilities minimize the installation of unsightly power lines should electricity demands stress the transmission capacity of the region. 

John Harrison, a spokesman for the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Power Planning Council, says the region has an adequate transmission system for current electricity loads. 

“Our transmission system is OK for the near future, but as with any other question regarding power these days, there are circumstances that will cause it to be overloaded, and perhaps rather quickly,” he says. 

The most transmission stress right now occurs east to west, trying to get electricity from utilities east of the Cascades to the big population centers in western Oregon and Washington.