Wednesday, December 08, 2004

A Cheaper Alternative to Fuel Cells?
For the past several years I've been intrigued by the potential of fuel cells for home power generation and incidental water heating. There are already several prototypes on the market, such as those from Plug Power. But now there's a lower-tech version of the same idea: a natural gas-fired home generator that can run a circulating hot water heating system and put out 1200 watts of electricity. It's powered by a Stirling engine, which until recently has been a novelty device, but was always seen on the verge of a big breakthrough.

The WhisperGen, built in New Zealand, is on initial home trials in the UK, at a cost of 1350 pounds sterling ($2600 at current exchange rates.) It could give home fuel cells serious competition on two fronts. First, it is billed as a boiler that also generates electricity, rather than as a generator that incidentally produces some hot water, so consumers may regard it as more similar to existing home heating systems. Secondly, although the Stirling engine is not exactly a familiar item, it is still less exotic--and perhaps more reliable-sounding--than a fuel cell.

At the end of the day, I suspect that a little competition in this area will turn out to be healthy for both technologies, since at this point the success of both relies on changing consumers' perceptions about producing electricity in the home, rather than relying exclusively on the power grid.

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