The future of electrical generation may arrive in Southern California this week when engineers from Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. switch on a revolutionary new power plant.
It's not that this power plant is an immediate solution to the Golden State's power woes. No bigger than a trailer-truck, it generates 220 kilowatts of electricity. That's enough to power an office building, 100 homes or perhaps a small ship, but not to relieve power shortages in a state where demands reach 32,000 megawatts.
Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. expects to find customers willing to spend $1,000 to $2,000 per kilowatt for fuel cells, but researchers will have to drive costs down much further to get widespread use of the cells.
Mark Williams, fuel cell product manager at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, said costs will have to drop to $400 per kilowatt before people start buying fuel cells to heat and light their homes or begin driving electric cars powered by fuel cells.
To reach that $400-per-kilowatt goal by 2010, the Energy Department has launched a $100 million Solid-State Energy Conversion Alliance, which is being directed by the energy technology labin Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W.Va., and by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash. About $56 million of that total will be controlled by the energy technology lab.
The plan is to develop so-called "planar" solid oxide fuel cells, which have inherently high efficiency and low emissions. These would be built in five-kilowatt modules that could be mass-produced and then combined in whatever configuration or numbers a given application might require.
The alliance will award contracts to industry and university teams to develop the materials and other technologies necessary for the new planar cells.
What is notable is the way it generates power. Rather than burning fuel to turn a generator, it electrochemically converts natural gas directly into electrical current. It then uses heat produced by this process to run a turbine, generating even more electricity. The result is a system of unprecedented efficiency that produces little in the way of pollution.
Siemens Westinghouse calls it a solid oxide fuel cellgas turbine hybrid. Mark Williams of the National Energy Technology Laboratory calls it "remarkable."
"As far as I know, there's no device that can match it," said Williams, who heads fuel cell development at the lab's Strategic Center for Natural Gas. "It's got incredible efficiency," converting almost 60 percent of the energy in natural gas into electricity, compared with the 35 percent typical of conventional power plants. "It produces half the carbon dioxide (of a conventional plant) and has no regulated emissions."
An extended demonstration run for Southern California Edison and the U.S. Department of Energy is to begin in Irvine, Calif., this week.
Siemens Westinghouse sees the Irvine demonstration, as well as a one-megawatt hybrid slated to begin operation next year at Fort Meade, Md., as a prelude to producing commercial versions by 2003 or 2004.
Williams hopes the demonstrations will be further evidence that the fuel cell may finally be ready to shed its perennial label as a power source of the future and become a power source of the here and now.