Fuel cells are poised to light up your life

As gas prices have continued to climb, there has been an ever-broadening discussion of the steps that America must take to reduce its dependence on oil. Unfortunately, however, the general consensus seems to be that the situation is hopeless, the only real alternative to gas is pricey biofuels, and we should probably just throw in the towel. Consequently, it was with a happy heart that I recently read about a Whole Foods Market that is opening in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

I'm not a huge fan of Whole Foods (they're a little overpriced), and I'm not the biggest fan of Glastonbury (one of my sisters lives there, so I visit it a fair bit. Nice place, but a little boring). Still, this story cheered me up more than words can say. You see, this morning, when the manager turned on the lights, most of the energy that powered the store didn't come from the electrical grid. It came from a fuel cell.

Produced by UTC Power, the fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water. In the process, it produces enough energy to cover half of the 46,000 square foot store's electrical and heating needs, while providing all the store's hot water. It also creates considerably less pollution than conventional power plants, and UTC estimates that Whole Foods' use of a fuel cell has generated reductions in carbon dioxide that make it comparable to planting 21 acres of forest. In terms of reducing nitrogen oxide reductions, they claim that the fuel cell is comparable to removing 100 cars from the highway per year. Another benefit is that all of the fuel cell power is produced on-site, which means that the Whole Foods could continue to operate in the case of a power outage.

Connecticut seems to be leading the way in fuel cell usage. Late last year, the state announced that it was using fuel cells to power the Middletown High School and Vocational Agricultural Center, which is due to open in September of this year. In addition to enabling the 283,000 square-foot school to gain LEED certification, the independent power generation of the fuel cells will make the facility into a fully-functional emergency refuge. Best of all, according to UTC Power President, Jan Van Dokkum, using a fuel cell will enable the school to educate children in the safe use of alternative fuels.

While they are just beginning to come into general use, fuel cells are hardly new technology; in fact, the first one was built in 1839 by Sir William Grove. However, they were not really utilized until the 1960's, when NASA used them to power its spacecraft, citing their safety and relatively low cost. They still power (and provide water) to the Space Shuttles. Unfortunately, fuel cells are still relatively expensive in comparison to other power sources, but, as more and more companies start to use them, the price is expected to drop considerably. Given that this technology can be used to power automobiles, as well as a wide variety of facilities, it offers almost unlimited promise as an alternate fuel source to help the United States reduce its dependence on foreign oil supplies.

And that, of course, would mean a brighter future for everybody (except OPEC).

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's waiting for Trader Joe's to start using fuel cells.

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