According to Frost & Sullivan, a marketing research firm, power quality issues in present transmission networks are expected to benefit the development of fuel cell-based power generation technologies. The requirement of additional electric power is likely to increase dramatically beyond the next decade. It will be a significant challenge for any power utility to accommodate such a large incremental load using only its existing transmission and distribution network.
The reluctance of power companies to invest in newer power plants due to lack of returns and the widening gap between the demand and supply of power are expected to motivate distributed power generation. One research analyst from Frost & Sullivan remarks that building or upgrading power plants carries a risk of overcapacity, making distributed power generation more attractive. He also observed that fuel cells are the most appropriate technology for distributed power generation due to high reliability and efficiency.
Researchers already have developed a direct fuel cell-based technology that uses potassium lithium carbonate as the electrolyte, operates at 1200°C and provides 250 kW to 3 MW of power. This technology can help generate electricity directly from hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas and wastewater treatment gas. This one-step energy conversion process offers significant cost benefits over competing technologies such as phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFCs) and proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), which use complex reforming techniques.
In another cost-related issue, technology developers will have to ensure the availability of hydrogen-rich natural gas to facilitate distributed generation applications as well as to stabilize prices to drive greater uptake of the technology. However, important factors driving the industry further are the growing concern for the environment and the limited supply of fossil fuels.