Consumers ready for home fuel cell systems

by Shunichi Ueno

Kyodo News

Tokyo Gas Co. is receiving inquiries from potential customers who are interested in buying a fuel cell system at any price and want to know when the company is going to sell one.

“We’ve certainly decided to market it but haven’t made anything definite, such as its price or product name,” said Hiroaki Kobayashi, head of the planning group at the research and development headquarters of Tokyo Gas.

“Furthermore, the number of units to be marketed will be limited at first,” he said.

The initial unit, being jointly developed with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. and Ebara Ballard Corp., will be able to generate 1 kw of power and will have a tank capable of storing 20 liters of hot water.

It will have a power-generation efficiency of 31 percent and a heat efficiency of 40 percent.

There are a variety of different fuel cells being developed, including a solid high-polymer cell that is presently in the most advanced stage of development for home use.

The cell works by extracting hydrogen from home-supplied gas, and the major advantage is that it can utilize existing building facilities, such as piping.

The developers hope this type of fuel cell will be mass produced as small, light units.

Industry sources said the price will determine whether the fuel cell system will be widely used. It should be possible to sell a set of cells for less than 500,000 yen, provided the government offers subsidies, they said.

All those involved with the fuel cells agreed that users should be able to recover their initial layout costs in about five years by saving money on electrical bills, among other things.

Besides the issues of price and efficiency, durability and reliability problems need to be resolved.

“For the time being, home builders and government and municipal offices will get the system,” said Ken Tabata, manager of Osaka Gas Co.’s department on cogeneration projects for home use. Tokyo Gas officials have similar views.

The two gas companies appear to be laying down the groundwork to introduce fuel cells by establishing a marketing strategy and raising public awareness.

Kobayashi said that marketing the fuel cell system could be difficult, that its price must be lowered, and that it be energy-efficient. People also need to be made more aware of the cells contribution to environmental protection, he said.

Cogeneration, the generation of electricity and steam from the same source, is the system’s strong point, Kobayashi said, but the problem is “how to make suggestions to consumers on the effective use of the hot water.”

Hideaki Akamatsu, chief of the First Planning Division of the Fuel Commercialization Conference of Japan, said the question is “how efficiently the entire system can be utilized.”

He said demand for the system is growing but research on the efficient use of the system is not complete. The level of technology using hot water must be raised, he said.

Tokyo Gas officials said they hope to upgrade the efficiency rate of the next product’s power generation to 37 percent, the same level as at thermal power plants. This level would be good for the system’s hot water production, they said.

The developers are also hoping to diversify. In addition to using fuel cells in homes and businesses, they would like to see them in automobiles, personal computers and portable devices.

The demand for fuel cell-powered PCs and portable devices could turn out to be greater than for home systems, industry sources said.

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