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The Role of Hydrogen Fuel Cells in Distributed Energy Systems

image credit: Gencell image used with permission.

This item is part of the Special Issue - 09/2019 - Distributed Energy Resources, click here for more

Transformational technologies are making DERs possible

Alkaline fuel cells extracting hydrogen to generate long-duration backup power to sustain mission critical assets can play a significant role in Distributed Energy Resource (DER) topology, meeting two key objectives in parallel – on the one hand, fuel cells supply independent power for as long as the grid is not available; on the other hand, the stored energy in the fuel cell can instantly deliver power to the grid to support peak power demands.

The DER business model creates value both for local communities looking to reduce energy costs and retain control and for utilities looking to diversify, increase energy resilience, add customer value and create new revenue streams. Many utilities are looking to incorporate a distributed model to solve a variety of challenges, including compliance with environmental legislation, relieving pressure on overworked grids and meeting future energy demands.

The benefits to be gained from incorporating fuel cells into DER models

The most important advantage that DERs bring to the table is grid stability.  For those seeking highly reliable power, incorporating fuel cells as a key component within a DER environment ensures critical auxiliary power in areas where the grid is unstable. The fuel cell provides a failsafe backup power source that contributes to the system’s reliability as well as its sustainability credentials. A DER model incorporates several sources of power generation, including renewable energies. But due to their weather dependency, wind and solar can only provide intermittent power. As more renewable energy enters the electricity market, introducing higher volatility in supply due to intermittence of these sources, there is a greater need for stored energy to compensate and provide balance.  Fuel cells offer inherent benefits beyond power generation; they can play a role in energy storage and regulating power flow. This makes them an effective DER component for microgrids and other distributed energy systems.

As a modular and scalable technology, additional fuel cells can be easily added to expand the system to meet growing energy demands. Unlike solar and wind farms that require large tracts of land, alkaline fuel cells require substantially less space and are significantly easier to install in urban environments. Producing zero emissions, virtually no noise and no vibrations, fuel cells can be placed either outdoors or within any ventilated building facility. So, in areas vulnerable to hurricanes or severe weather, fuel cells can be placed within protected environments to ensure that there is no disruption to life-saving emergency power, both by maintaining operations through grid outages caused by severe weather incidents and providing power during utility reparations required to repair damages wreaked by storms.

Regulatory requirements to integrate hydrogen fuel cells in distributed energy systems

Many regulations, guidelines, and codes and standards have already been established through years of hydrogen use in industrial and aerospace applications. In addition, systems and organizations are already in place to establish codes and standards that facilitate hydrogen and fuel cell commercialization.  In the U.S., the Department of Energy (DOE) has sponsored the development of permitting tools to facilitate the regulatory process and provide information about relevant codes and standards for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. In parallel, the NFPA introduced the NFPA 2 Hydrogen Technologies Code to provide a single resource to support the design and approval of hydrogen equipment and facilities. To leverage hydrogen and fuel cells to play a greater role in DER configurations, adherence to the relevant codes and standards and obtaining and maintaining the prerequisite local permits minimizing the safety hazards related to the use of hydrogen is compulsory and will facilitate the wider recognition of the valuable role fuel cells can play.

The DOE has developed practices and procedures to ensure safe operation and handling of hydrogen and hydrogen systems. Around the world efforts are being made to enable the transition to renewable energy sources and regulatory organizations are working with utilities and third parties to identify the current gaps in the standards development process to enable the accelerated incorporation of hydrogen fuel cells and other applications into distributed energy systems.

DERs introduce opportunities for efficiency and clean energy gains on the grid

The DER topology allows for increased penetration of renewable power to the grid while reducing the grid instability that intermittent renewables cause utilities.  Overall, the capacity of a DER to regulate power supply and avoid volatile fluctuations reduces the impact of peak demands both on the operational side as well as moderating electricity pricing. 

Another key value that the DER approach brings to the market is by introducing wider choice of electricity suppliers for consumers, which in the long run will lead to better service. Utilities are gradually recognizing the value of integrating the DER model, taking advantage of the DER’s advanced real-time monitoring capabilities to optimize their smart grids, improving efficiency and enabling a variety of improved services that allow customers to better manage their power consumption.

Growing recognition of the value of the DER model leveraging the potential of hydrogen fuel cell energy for backup power and stabilization offers enormous value for today’s energy market. Just as new technologies have enabled positive disruption in many other market segments such as transportation, healthcare, hospitality and countless others, similarly today’s utilities are recognizing that the technologies that DER bring to the table empower the industry to overcome tough challenges, from grid instability to peak demands to the pressing issue of climate change that is forcing the world to accelerate our transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources such as solar, wind and hydrogen fuel cells.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 23, 2019

I wasn't aware so much of the regulatory groundwork had already been laid out for hydrogen cells-- it's good to see the industry being so forward-looking. Do you have any recommended references for the best places to read up on that progress, Rami?

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Aug 26, 2019

Hi Matt,

A good starting point for information about hydrogen fuel cell safety in the U.S. is The NFPA 2 Hydrogen Technologies code can be accessed from Hydrogen standards are developing around the world, and great progress is being made, especially in Europe. You can check out to follow these developments.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 26, 2019

Great-- thanks for these resources, Rami

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 27, 2019

Rami, in alkaline fuel cell technology what's the source of hydrogen, the process used to extract it, and its round-trip efficiency?

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Aug 28, 2019

Hi Bob, thanks for your questions. Alkaline fuel cells (AFCs) are among the most efficient type of FCs, reaching up to 60% efficiency. (GenCell’s FCs have been tested to reach 52% electric efficiency and up to 87% combined heat and power efficiency.).

To produce energy, the AFC uses a pair of porous electrodes—a positively charged cathode and a negatively charged anode— that are separated by an alkaline or membrane electrolyte. Air, containing oxygen, is fed to the cathode gas chamber where it reacts with water to produce four OH- ions and four positive charges. These OH- ions, attracted by the anode, pass from the cathode through the KOH electrolyte. Hydrogen, fed to the anode, reacts with the OH- ions to form molecules of water and negative charges. The electrons are attracted by the positive charge on the cathode and are forced through an external circuit as an electric current. The reaction produces usable heat and water as a byproduct.

Offering a reliable source of backup power, AFCs can play a positive role in the world’s increasingly volatile distributed energy systems.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 12, 2019

Rami, I'm happy to see that there's somebody out there actively engaged in this market. I notice, however, that you didn't answer Bob's question about the source of hydrogen. Are your fuel cells reversible, producing hydrogen on site by electrolysis, or are they strictly for backup power, with hydrogen piped or trucked in from an external supplier?

Your main competition in the DER space would seem to me to be battery banks or PEM fuel cells. Battery banks have the advantage of instant switching between charge and delivery modes. Their round trip energy efficiency is high, if drawing "as available" energy from the grid is one of the functions thay you want to support. Their downside is limited energy storage capacity. Fuel cells, whether alkaline of PEM, are limited only by the source of their hydrogen supply.

Can you say anything about your reasons for going with alkaline FCs over PEM? Is it only a matter of cost and maturity of the technology? PEM fuel cells are now under volume in Japan and Korea, I believe, for the automotive market. Last I looked, DOE projects the capital cost of PEM HFCs at an incredibly low $56 per kilowatt (or thereabouts).

I'm also interested in your take on participation in the ancillary services market. Do current regulations allow you to access that market? And if not, how would you like to see the regulations changed?

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Sep 15, 2019

Hello Roger, and thanks so much for your comments and questions.  First of all, we are flexible regarding the source of hydrogen. Our customers can choose to either employ hydrogen produced through electrolysis on-site or use industrially sourced hydrogen supply in cylinders, or going forward we will be enabling on-site synthesis of hydrogen from liquid ammonia. Extracting hydrogen from ammonia will be extremely advantageous due to it being both highly available as well as low in cost, whether in comparison to other hydrogen sources or even in comparison to diesel fuel. At present regulatory restrictions on ammonia make it appropriate primarily for use in remote locations.

There are several reasons that we decided to develop alkaline fuel cells rather than PEM – these include a) higher resiliency; b) ability to withstand a wide range of temperatures from -20⁰- 45⁰C; and especially - c) the ability to run on industrial-grade hydrogen and ammonia, which PEM cannot do. This capacity also has a very positive impact on operating costs.

Regarding ancillary energy services, we believe that as fuel cells – of any type - become mainstream and are more widely adopted for both primary and backup energy applications, they can be relevant in two different aspects: Firstly, during storms and harsh weather conditions, for example as now occurred during Hurricane Dorian, fuel cells will be able to play a role in grid immunization.  Secondly, because low-temperature fuel cell solutions can inject an immediate, local source of power, they can be used on-demand to stabilize the grid in situations of volatility that we expect to occur more frequently, both due to the increasing proportion of intermittent renewable energies in the grid, as well as because of the high power demands that will be made on the grid by the widespread adoption of peak load consumers such as EVs.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Sep 16, 2019

Thanks for those answers. They all make sense, especially after I checked out GenCell Energy's web site and reviewed your product offerings.

I was hoping to hear that you had scored a breakthrough in regenerative fuel cell technology -- cells that can switch between fuel cell mode and electrolysis mode. That development would potentially enable a 50% reduction in capex for a system that made hydrogen when there was surplus electricity, and subsequently used the hydrogen for power in periods when there was a deficit. But no, separate systems are evidently still needed to do that. I guess the problem of dual-function oxygen catalysts for efficient regenerative fuel cell operation has proven hard to crack. 

Something I didn't see in the promotional material on GenCell's web site: use of your systems to reduce demand charges for businesses that are billed that way. It's a market currently dominated by batteries, since small amounts of energy storage devoted to peak shaving can yield large savings in utility bills. However, battery cost scales with duration; for some customers the longer duration that your systems can economically deliver would yield higher savings at lower system cost. It depends on their specific usage profile and the utility's rate structure.

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Sep 25, 2019

Interesting Roger, but we are not working on regenerative fuel cell technology. Peak shaving can indeed yield large savings from an investment in fuel cells.

Rami Reshef's picture

Thank Rami for the Post!

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