Fuel Cells ready for mass market

Oorja Protonics, which specializes in methanol fuel cells, is soon to release a product able to run a home or small business.

Check out the video on the next page: the 5-kilowatt fuel cell fits on top of a gurney. Its about the same size as a suitcase and the power costs about 25cents per kilowatt hour.

“You could use it for auxiliary power for trucks, RVs or marine applications, or for off-grid power for homes or farms,” said CEO Sanjiv Malhotra. “This pays for itself in less than 12 months” compared to conventional power.

For larger applications, the fuel cells can be chain-ganged together. Connect twenty of them and they would be capable of generating 100 kilowatts of power — as much energy as the recently unfurled Bloom Energy Server, but at a tiny fraction of the price.

Falling costs, federal and state incentives, growing demand for cleaner power and improving technology have begun to revive the fuel cell industry. Panasonic began to sell residential fuel cells to the Japanese market approximately a year ago while start-up ClearEdge Power sells 5 kilowatt systems in California. And last month, Bloom Energy came out with its server amid a worldwide frenzy of publicity.

Oorja has real-world customer experience. Last year, it introduced a 1.5-kilowatt fuel cell and over 200 of these have already been installed by customers such as Nissan and Safeway.  Last year, Nissan estimated that 60 of the methanol fuel cells in its Smyrna, Tennessee factory will save it close to $500,000 in operating and battery costs. The new 5-kilowatt system is effectively a larger, improved version of the 1.5 -kilowatt Model 3.

Oorja will be much cheaper than the competition. Bloom’s Energy Server sells for around $700,000 to $800,000 (or $7,000 per kilowatt) before incentives, which can cover around half of the price. After incentives, Bloom claims its server generates power for 9 to 11 cents a kilowatt hour, a calculation that includes fuel, maintenance and hardware expenses. ClearEdge Power sells a 5-kilowatt fuel cell for $56,000, or more than $10,000 a kilowatt. ClearEdge initially sold its machine for $50,000 but subsequently raised the price.

Malhotra declined to give a price for the 5-kilowatt machine, but said it will cost less than Oorja’s Model 3 fuel cell, which generates 1.5 kilowatts and sells for $15,000, or $10,000 a kilowatt, before incentives. The 5-kilowatt machine is approaching the point where it can provide electricity for 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt hour, he said, including maintenance, fuel, replacement parts and other incentives. Federal and state incentives can cover half of the costs. The fuel cell also produces about as much heat as energy and that heat isn’t included in the 20 to 25 cent figure.

Thus, in many respects, Oorja seems to be ahead of ClearEdge, a more direct competitor, and trailing Bloom in terms of electricity by a few cents. Oorja, though, can provide customers heat for free, unlike Bloom, and address a wider market.

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