13-07-31 micro CHP

Micro-CHP Fuel Cells for Businesses, Schools and Shared Accommodation

Date publishedFormat
31 Jul 2013PDF (481 kb)

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13-07-31 micro CHP

Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited BlueGen unit installed at the Madeley Centre, Staffs, UK.

Fuel cells for micro combined heat and power (micro-CHP) applications are experiencing such strong support through the Japanese Ene-Farm scheme that energy consultants Delta-ee recently announced that sales of fuel cell micro-CHP had overtaken those of conventional micro-CHP boilers worldwide. Compared to the Japanese scheme, a small number of fuel cell micro-CHP systems have been deployed in Europe, and even fewer elsewhere, but adapting a successful fuel cell technology deployment from one region to sell in others around the world is by no means a simple task – as exemplified in our previous analyst view looking at the global materials handling market. However one emerging application for fuel cell micro-CHP in the UK could be globally applicable.

Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited (CFCL) is targeting the market for social housing, shared accommodation, schools and small businesses for its 1.5 kW solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) system, known as BlueGen. CFCL is positioning its fuel cell system to maximise value for its customers by generating electricity ‘behind the meter’. The best value can be obtained when customers can utilise all of the electricity produced by the BlueGen system, hence installations where the baseload electrical demand is higher than would be found in a single-occupancy dwelling are being targeted. Small businesses and schools are possible end-users with sufficiently large electricity and heat requirements; schools can also benefit from an educational point of view, by using data from their fuel cell for teaching purposes.

One case study from a hairdressing salon in Oxfordshire found that installing a BlueGen unit alongside other energy saving measures, such as LED lighting and wastewater heat recovery, resulted in a 100% reduction in grid electricity and a 25% reduction in gas usage over a typical three month period. This installation had limited scope for installation of renewable technologies; the owner had no roof space available for solar PV and erecting a wind turbine in the centre of Oxford was also not an option – a fuel cell provided the perfect solution in this instance.

But it is in shared accommodation, specifically social housing schemes, where the environmental benefits of fuel cell micro-CHP can be augmented with additional societal benefits.

Residents in social housing schemes and those on pre-paid electricity meters typically pay the most for their electricity when compared to customers billed monthly; they also tend to be the ones who would benefit most from cheaper electricity. To this end, CFCL has engaged with financiers to provide BlueGen units to such schemes for free, enabling residents to save money from the outset. The fuel cell system is fully financed over a ten year period, with investment returns for the financing companies coming from the UK’s favourable feed-in tariff. This allows electricity from the system to be sold at a 10% discount to the lowest commercial tariff, providing residents with instant savings. The financial return for investors in these projects is around 6%-9% with a payback period of seven years. After the contractual ten year period, ownership of the BlueGen unit passes to the building’s owner and can continue to be used.

This type of shared use for the output of a fuel cell helps to maximise its utilisation, with one unit powering up to four UK apartments, or an installation of five units powering an entire block. The high efficiency of fuel cells in this application can offer environmental savings of 3-4 tonnes of CO2 per year and greater than 20% savings on fuel bills, based upon the hairdressing salon mentioned earlier.

In testing this deployment model, where fuel cells are installed alongside other energy saving technologies, CFCL has identified synergies specifically with ground-source heat pumps, where the thermal recovery is boosted. The electrical efficiency of the system remains at 59% (LHV), but total efficiencies of 106% (LHV) can be achieved.

As mentioned earlier in this article, to date, the bulk of residential micro-CHP installations have been restricted to individual customers in detached Japanese houses. The size of the fuel cells sold in Japan has been reduced from 1 kW down to 700-750 W in order to optimise their use and lower costs, but they are still too large for apartment buildings, both in terms of electrical output and physical size. Transferring residential fuel cell micro-CHP technology from one region of the world to another has proven difficult due to the different requirements for electricity and hot water around the globe. Houses in Japan tend to be smaller than those in Europe, which in turn are smaller than those in the USA, the balance between electricity and hot water requirements also varies by region. Smaller units designed for individual apartments are under development, but are not yet available.

The ability to share the output from one or more fuel cells across a number of apartments has introduced an elegant solution to these issues. No miniaturisation is necessary and the different energy requirements of apartments in different countries and regions can be met simply to adjusting the number of units installed in each building, which would also be the case for different sized buildings in the same country. The physical size of the units is also not an issue, because shared fuel cell systems could be installed in plant rooms, or utility areas (as shown in the header image).

Financing for units in the UK and Germany has already been secured due to the favourable legislative frameworks in those countries, so CFCL is interested in hearing from suitable applicants who fit the installation criteria. Currently CFCL is happy to focus on the UK, German and Benelux markets, and it has received numerous enquiries in the few weeks since the launch of the “BlueGen for free” campaign. More information about the scheme is available on its dedicated website.

Finding other regions for deployments of this type would require minimal product development which eases the route to market. Similar feed-in tariffs and financial support schemes would be the main obstacle, but such schemes do exist, with California’s SGIP being a prime example.

Dan Carter     Manager




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