12-02-29 Ene-Farm Update

Fuel Cell Residential Micro-CHP Developments in Japan

Date publishedFormat
29 Feb 2012PDF (438 kb)

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Jonny and I are in Japan this week attending the FC Expo, so it seems fitting to report on the most successful residential micro-CHP fuel cell project to date – Ene-Farm.

The project began in the 1990s with research leading to the development of a 1 kW PEMFC system fuelled by city-gas-derived hydrogen to produce heat and power for private homes. This led to the demonstration phase which took place between 2003 and 2005 with less than 50 units installed. From 2005 the large-scale demonstration project began; this first stage of the large-scale demonstration ran until 2009 and installed close to 3,000 micro-CHP fuel cell systems. The commercialisation phase began from 2009, and in the past three years more than 20,000 units have been installed with subsidies available from the Japanese government to assist with the capital cost.

In Japan, electrification of the home has been heavily promoted in recent years. This has included the installation of many electric heat pumps, powered by Japan’s nuclear industry, seen to be the future of power in the country. But in 2011, the after-effects of the Tōhoku Earthquake resulted in a reduced supply of electricity, and requests from the government for households to reduce their demands. This proved a difficult prospect with electrification so prevalent and so the opportunity for individuals to diversify their energy requirements, such as by installing a gas fuelled Ene-Farm system, proved highly desirable; subsidies for the scheme in 2011 sold out on two occasions.

Subsidies for the capital cost of an Ene-Farm system (up to a maximum of ¥1.05 million) have been available from the Japanese Government with smaller subsidies to incentivise purchases also available from local governments. In the Tokyo area, local subsidies can range from ¥50,000 up to a maximum of ¥500,000 in certain parts of the city. The total available funding for the scheme from the Government in each year has remained at similar levels, but with increasing sales the incentive per unit has effectively been reducing. In 2011 total funds amounted to more than ¥9 billion ($112.7 million) and continued funding during the next few years will be crucial to maintaining the good progress so far.

Since its introduction, the Ene-Farm system has been continually improved. The latest version offered by Tokyo Gas has a reduction in rated power from 1 kW down to 0.7 kW, offers a 3% improvement in electrical efficiency (LHV) and occupies 49% less floor space. These improvements were made while at the same time decreasing cost by 20%. Continued cost reduction will be vital to the long-term success of the scheme, but increasing sales volumes can only help.

The Ene-Farm systems currently must be connected to the electricity grid in order to operate, but for an additional cost a battery can be added to allow totally off-grid operation. Ene-Farm systems operate during the day, when power demand is highest and hot water can be stored, and are programmed to switch off at night, when demand for both hot water and electricity are reduced; any additional electricity needs are met from the grid. The PEMFC systems are ideally suited to this on and off mode of operation, and can be programmed to operate at optimum efficiencies under this load profile. Newly introduced SOFC systems must operate continually as stop-start operation can cause damaging temperature variations. Therefore there is a trade-off between operational efficiency and continuous operation, because heat and electricity are not needed at all times. As a result, the higher theoretical efficiency of SOFC systems is difficult to realise and in actual operation PEMFC and SOFC efficiencies are similar. For the next few years, PEMFC systems are expected to remain the dominant technology in the Ene-Farm scheme.

The spectacular growth in sales to date is expected to continue, and in 2012 it is hoped almost 20,000 units will be sold, rising to a sales target of 50,000 units per year by 2015. I expect the success of this scheme to be replicated elsewhere with Panasonic already having opened a research centre in Europe to develop products for that market. Many other fuel cell manufacturers around the world are also developing residential micro-CHP systems and if the lessons learnt deploying systems in Japan can be successfully exported then the future for residential fuel cells is very bright indeed.

 Dan Carter     Manager

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Dr Dan Carter
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