Hydrogen Fuel Cell: A Megawatt On Wheels

At a coal-fired power plant in Ohio, of all places, an ambitious experiment in clean energy is taking place. FirstEnergy, the plant’s operator, and Ballad Power Systems say they’re testing a giant but mobile fuel cell in the hope that such a system can provide power to utilities “when and where it’s needed.”

The companies say the 54-foot-long proton exchange membrane hydrogen-power fuel cell, which rests on a tractor-trailer, is the world’s largest of its sort and is capable of producing a megawatt of power. That’s enough to keep the lights on and air conditioners humming at 600 homes. The plan is to test the cell for the next five years “in real-world operation conditions” in order to see if it really can be a viable option during summertime peaking periods.

FirstEnergy Ballard utility-scale hydrogen-powered fuel cell

image via Ballard

FirstEnergy said environmental regulations requiring clean energy at those crunch times was driving the development. Hydrogen-powered proton exchange membrane fuel cells combine hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electrical energy. The byproducts are heat and water. That’s the upside of the technology — and Ballard fuel cells have made inroads as a power source for buses (20 such buses were used at this year’s Winter Olympics in British Columbia) — but it hasn’t yet been convincing as a cost competitive and reliable, durable option on a utility scale.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.