Fuel cells for domestic heat and power: are they worth it?

Staffell, Iain (2010). Fuel cells for domestic heat and power: are they worth it? University of Birmingham. Ph.D.


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Fuel cells could substantially decarbonise domestic energy production, but at what cost? It is known that these micro-CHP systems are expensive but actual price data has been elusive. Economic realities constrain individuals’ decisions to purchase and national policies on climate change, so this lack of understanding has delayed commercialisation and government support. Models were therefore developed to simulate the economic and environmental benefits from operating fuel cell micro-CHP systems in UK homes, and to project current purchase prices into the near future. These models were supplied with economic and performance data from an extensive meta-review of academic and commercial demonstrations; showing for example that fuel cell efficiencies are a third lower when operated in people’s homes rather than in the laboratory. These data inputs were combined with energy consumption data from 259 houses to give a broad definition of operating conditions in the UK. The techno-economic fuel cell simulation model was validated against results from literature and Japanese field trials, and then used to estimate the changes in home energy consumption from operating the four leading fuel cell technologies in the UK. Fuel cells are shown to offer negligible financial benefits in the UK at present. Energy bills would increase in 30-60% of homes, due in part to the low value of exported electricity. Savings are higher in houses with larger energy bills, but significant variation between similar properties confirms that simple trends cannot be used to identify ideal houses for fuel cell micro-CHP. The feed-in tariff proposed by the UK government would radically improve economic outcomes; as 10p paid per kWh of electricity generation would reward fuel cell owners with £600-750 annually. It is estimated that today’s fuel cells produce 360-450g of CO\(_2\) per kWh of electricity generated due to reforming natural gas into hydrogen on-site. Their carbon intensity is therefore 30-45% lower than the UK grid, enabling average annual emissions reductions of 1-2.2 tonnes per home. These reductions depend strongly on the displaced electricity generation method, and could therefore range from around zero when displacing high efficiency gas turbines up to 5.5 tonnes if displacing coal. From learning-by-doing, the price of Japanese 1kW PEMFC systems is shown to have fallen by 19.1-21.4% for each doubling of production volume. Prices are therefore projected to fall from £15,000 today to £6,000 within 10±5 years, determined primarily by the speed and scale of deployment world-wide. A commercially viable price of around £3,000 is however expected to be two decades away, and widely held targets of under £1,000 per kW are argued to be unobtainable with current technologies due to the requirement for extensive balance of plant and auxiliary systems. Combining all these findings, the payback period of PEMFC systems would be 25-45 years with the proposed 10p/kWh feed-in tariff. This could fall to within current system lifetimes after 5-10 years of cost reductions; however, without this level of government support the savings from operation will be unable to give payback without major improvements in technology performance or more favourable energy prices. The carbon cost of current PEMFC systems is estimated at £750-950 per tonne of CO\(_2\) mitigated. This figure is highly sensitive to the carbon intensity of displaced generation, and would reduce to £175/T if generation from coal plants is avoided. Fuel cells are therefore not among the ‘low hanging fruit’ of carbon abatement technologies, although the carbon costs will halve over the next ten years in line with system price reductions. Investment in this technology must therefore be considered a long term strategy for low-carbon energy production.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Engineering & Physical Sciences
School or Department: School of Chemical Engineering
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: T Technology > TP Chemical technology
URI: http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/641


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