Fuel cell rethink – what’s the true cost?

How can scientists and manufacturers make fuel cells and fuel cell technology a viable and affordable alternative to fossil fuels? 

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) are tackling that question not by changing fuel-cell technology, but by building a sophisticated model that will illustrate the total, “big picture” costs of fuel cells for potential users.

As an energy source, fuel cells are rich with potential. They are super-clean, efficient, silent and don’t require transmission lines. 

They are, however, costly. With the help of a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, a team of scientists led by Eric Masanet of the lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division will perform a detailed assessment of fuel cell design and manufacturing that takes into account both intrinsic and external benefits. 

The aim is to quantify not only traditional manufacturing costs but also benefits that may previously have been overlooked. Factoring them in may ultimately bring down the cost of fuel cells. The project is expected to last five years. A working tool should be available in three years, and Berkeley Lab scientists will continue to update the model for another two years.

“Our model will give an idea of the big picture savings, and whether there are incentives that can be provided to make sure the savings are captured. Maybe building owners might be willing to accept a higher price if there are other advantages that manufacturers and policy makers can quantify,” said Masanet. 

“And when it comes to health benefits, policy makers can often provide incentives to accelerate technology adoption if they can quantify the greater benefits to society. We will be using modeling techniques we’ve developed to see if there are optimal design and manufacturing strategies for different markets.”

The project will cover two types of fuel cells – solid oxide and proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells – in systems of up to 250 kilowatts and will use a software platform called Analytica that Masanet likens to a visual spreadsheet.

Because it is modular it will allow the user to easily change inputs, such as design and manufacturing costs and energy sources, and replace parts of the process.

“Something like this will have a shelf life,” he said. “We’ll deliver a tool that can be updated over time with new processes, new designs, new cost data.”

The tool can be used by designers, manufacturers and building owners as they make decisions around producing and implementing fuel cells.

* Steve Duda, EarthTechling