Originally created 02/03/03

Experts say wide use of fuel cell technology is decades away



KEARNEY, Neb. -- Coleman, the company that made its name with camping lanterns and stoves, is manufacturing a portable generator that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity, with pure water its only waste product.

The bad news: It is a technology decades away from widespread use, mostly because of the high cost.

The Coleman Powermate generators produce up to 1,000 watts of electricity. Because water is the only waste product of this fuel cell technology, it has tremendous appeal to promoters of clean energy.

A small number of companies are banking on hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Boosters foresee a boom; skeptics suggest it could end in bust.

"This is the early stages of a profound revolution taking place," said Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy."

But even the Coleman engineer who developed the company's $6,000 AirGen acknowledges that the cost of the technology is a major stumbling block.

"I know it works," said Ken Frank, senior research and development engineer at Coleman Powermate. "I guess the jury's out on whether people will buy it."

The company will not say how many of the units it has sold or to whom. It hopes to roll out a version for home use in March.

Other manufacturers include United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Conn. It has sold more than 250 fuel cells that produce 200 kilowatts and, according to spokesman Peter Dalpe, end up costing 16 cents per kilowatt hour over a 20-year period. The average cost of electricity from the grid in the United States is 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Those 40,000-pound United Technology generators are being used to complement the electrical grid in places like the First National Bank in Omaha, where two of the units ensure its mainframe computer uninterrupted performance.

The $3.4 million that the bank sank into four such units, though steep, ensures that credit card and other transactions can be processed even in a blackout, said Brenda Dooley, president of bank subsidiary First National Buildings. A loss of power could cost the bank $2 million an hour, Dooley said.

Still, using current technologies, it is too expensive to produce, store, transport and distribute hydrogen fuel to make it commonplace today, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

For most customers, it is still far cheaper to run a diesel generator as a source of backup power.

Plus, generating hydrogen typically produces the very greenhouse gases fuel cell power is supposed to reduce or eliminate. Eventually, backers hope to produce "clean" hydrogen using water and electricity generated from the sun or wind. For now, natural gas remains the main source.

On the Net:

Coleman Powermate: http://www.colemanpowermate.com

Department of Energy: http://www.eren.doe.gov/hydrogen

Rochester Institute of Technology: http://www.rit.edu