Fuel Cells for Domestic Electricity

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I spent some sleepless hours last night as a ferocious rain storm howled outside. It was blowing hard enough that I worried about tree limbs striking the house, but mostly I was thinking about power lines. Somewhere between the local substation and our house, something was bound to get knocked down, and we would have to cope with the inconvenience of being without electricity until the power company crews could string things back together.

As it happened, we were lucky, and the power didn't even wink (at least while I was awake). But it made me think again of how archaic the practice of planting poles and stringing wires seems in the digital age. As sophisticated as the buildings we create are, we still have to power then with what amounts to a vast network of extension cords. Distributed generation--putting the power plant in the neighborhood, or even right in the house--has long seemed to me the way of the future. But how far in the future?

Maybe not so far. CBS's 60 Minutes recently covered Bloom Energy a company that has invented an incredibly compact, modular fuel cell generator that seems surprisingly close to being market ready. A pair of the basic cells, each of which is small enough to hold in the palm of one's hand, is enough to run an average house. Gang enough of them together, and the system can power a large commercial facility, using fossil fuels, bio-fuels, or landfill gas. Bloom has secured hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, and has such early adopters as Google and Ebay testing large-scale arrays on their corporate campuses.

Power lines are so ubiquitous that we think we don't even see them. But when we finally do get rid of them, we're going to wonder how we stood them for so long. --Bruce D. Snider




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