Towards an European Fuel Cell Strategy

- By:

Courtesy of European Commission, Environment DG

 Head of Unit 'Energy Consumption Technology'

At the onset of the Fourth Framework Programme for Community research and technological development including demonstration, a ten year fuel cell strategy for Europe was published in 1995 jointly by DG XII (Directorate General for Science, Research and Development) and DG XVII (Directorate General for Energy). The interest of the European Community for such a technology was previously highlighted in the Council Decision of 23.11.1994 defining the scope of JOULE/THERMIE programme and the content of its workprogramme.

This strategy resulted from contacts with industry, universities, R&D centres, national energy agencies and relevant European Federations. It was intended to ensure coherence between R&D and Demonstration activities managed by the European Commission and to help defining the technical priorities of the successive calls for proposals.

The five type of fuel cells (Phosphoric Acid, Molten Caborate, Solid Oxide, Alkaline and Solid Polymer) are clean and efficient technologies that produce power and heat based on an electrochemical principle. Market actions are showing big interest for developing such a technologies because of their high electrical efficiency at full and partial loads combined with the production of heat between 80°C and 1000°C that enables cogeneration applications. Furthermore, fuel cells have a very low impact on environment.Pollutant emissions (CO, CO2, NOx, ...) and noise are extremely low in comparison with conventional technologies already commercialised for similar purposes.

Fuel Cells are envisaged in a first step for applications in a range from 10 kW to 5 MW and will come in competition with currently used systems such as gas turbines and steam turbines, in simple cycle or combined cycle, diesel engines for stationary power production as well as gasoline and diesel engines for ship and road traction.

In this range of application, the electrical efficiency of conventional systems is lower and measures to be taken to decrease the environmental impact are very expensive.

Presently, the viability of fuel cells technologies could only be foreseen at mid and long terms. The main issues for fuel cells are cost reduction and, for some fuel cell types, performance improvement. These two issues are closely linked as on one hand stack lifetime and power density dictate stack replacement costs and maintenance requirements, and on the other hand electrical efficiency and plant availability influence the likely payback time for a given capital cost. A fuel cell developer may not wish to optimise the electrical efficiency of the system if this drives up other costs. To reach commercial purposes, big efforts also have to be make on simplification, optimisation and integration of the Balance of Plant (BOP).

Market and institutional barriers, such as a reluctance to invest in new technologies and a lack of awareness of the technology, will become increasingly important as fuel cells move from demonstration to commercial application. Potential customers must be familiar with the technology and convinced of its benefits to their businesses before they will start to produce a 'market pull' for fuel cell systems.

Under this 'market pull' concept, the existing European strategy defines, among others, the technical priorities and the funds to be allocated over the ten years to both the R&D and Demonstration phases. The main elements of the strategy are :

  • To focus on R&D and Demonstration in low temperature fuel cells (Solid Polymer Fuel Cells - SPFC) which have a potential for a very low cost per kW. SPFCs are expected to find applications in cogeneration in buildings and transport in the medium term ;
  • To assess the feasibility of a fuel cell network which consists of a centralised hydrogen production and a number of decentralised fuel cell stack ;
  • To maintain R&D efforts on currently expensive high temperature fuel cells which offer opportunities for industrial cogeneration and large scale electricity production in the longer term ;
  • To limit the size of fuel cell stacks and stand-alone systems to around 200-300 kW with reasonable costs for a 40.000 hours operation. At this scale, conventional gas turbines have low efficiencies and are very expensive, while diesel engines cause pollutant emissions 3-4 orders of magnitude higher than those fuel cells and are not suitable in urban areas.

Because the Fuel Cell technology development is moving towards some new targeted objectives resulting from the experience gained in the previous years, the Commission is considering to update the 10 year strategy . To this end, the Commission invited the main market actors to contribute and organised on the 13th May 1997 in Brussels a consultation meeting in this technology field.

As a result of this meeting, the main recommendations to up-date the strategy are the following :

  • A lack of awareness of potential benefits is identified for some potential users, therefore a targeted dissemination programme is needed ;
  • A greater focus should be given to R&D and Demonstration programmes with application-driven technology, cost and performances targets ;
  • Focus should be given to stand-alone systems not networks ;
  • There are opportunities for SPFC bus fleet demonstration ;
  • The fuel processing options for transport should be evaluated ;
  • Support should be envisaged for combined high temperature fuel cell and gas turbine technology.

The concept of application-driven technology applied to R&D and Demonstration programmes has encountered the favourable opinion of the audience. It has been considered as being the key element that will influence market investigation and that will lead to the identification of new 'niche' for each fuel cell technology. This new concept combined with the willingness of the Commission to increase the European collaboration in projects is a step required to boost the Union's industrial competitiveness.

These recommendations will be taken into consideration when drafting a revised strategy paper that will serve as a reference in the context of the fifth EU R&D Framework Programme.

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