OSAKA, JAPAN—It looks like a doorless refrigerator, but it can generate 60 percent of the electric power, and 80 percent of the hot water, of the typical Japanese household. Fuel cells aren’t yet everywhere in Japan, but—running on widely available natural gas, and helped by government subsidies—they’re gaining traction.
According to Toshiki Shimizu, head of the fuel cell division at Panasonic’s appliance company, the home units would cost approximately $20,000 without subsidies, but in partnership with the feds and Tokyo Gas, homeowners pay only $10,000 to $12,000. Still, with a lifespan of only 10 years and savings of around $600 per year in heat and energy bills, the payback comes mostly from being a zero-emission energy pioneer. And that’s an increasingly important priority in post-Fukushima Japan.
The Panasonic unit incorporates a fuel processor that extracts hydrogen from natural gas. The hydrogen stack then produces electricity and hot water. The principle goes back to a British scientist and barrister named William Grove, who first described the process back in 1839, but only now are fuel cells likely to go mainstream. Four automakers—Daimler, Hyundai, Toyota and Honda—have promised commercial fuel cell cars by 2015 (with warm water dripping from their tailpipes).
Panasonic’s fuel cell boasts 90 percent efficiency (and 750-watt capacity), said Charlie Kobayashi of the company’s smart energy systems. Panasonic is planning to bring commercial fuel cells to Germany in 2014 in collaboration with a company called Veissmann, and more widely in Europe by 2015. Why not sell them in the U.S., which has the lowest natural gas prices in the world? Kobayashi didn’t rule it out, but he pointed out that the U.S. also has the some of the world’s lowest electricity prices. It’s hard for fuel cells to compete when the grid sells power at 12 cents per kilowatt hour. General Electric tried to market home fuel cells (in conjunction with a company called Plug Power) a dozen years ago, but gave up for that reason.
In Tokyo, Panasonic shows off its home fuel cell in a futuristic zero-emission Smart Home, where it works with solar panels, efficient appliances and a storage battery—all made by the company. In the garage is a plug-in Prius that will eventially be able to return power to the grid. The fuel cell is modestly sized. For the U.S. market, home units might have to be larger, given our more significant power usage.
This is still a modest business in Japan—the market in 2013 for all companies could total 35,000 units, and 40,000 are now in use. But if hydrogen stations start to dot the landscape as the cars hit the road, it could escalate rapidly. “It’s still small, but we’ve seen a rapid increase,” said Kobayashi. “There is much potential, not only in Japan but around the world.” Panasonic is churning out 70 fuel cells a day.
Fuel cells in operation are completely quiet. Kobayashi demonstrated a working cell that was powering the factory’s reception area. You couldn’t hear it running. In common with silent-running electric cars, it was the very mild hum of future zero-emission technology.
The fuel-cell factory was clinically clean, and workers looked like Ph.Ds in lab coats. It wasn't quite an assembly line, though there was one of those next door, where Panasonic was assembling air conditioners. I was taken by the remote control robot trolleys that moved around the factory floor, playing music to herald their arrival. Here's a video of the carts in action: