Will Fuel Cells Down Electric Power Lines Permanently?

Ice Storm Power Outage Heats Up Interest in Propane Fuel Cell Research


January 5, 1999

Washington, D.C. — With tens of thousands of homes without electric power because of winter storm damage to power lines, propane marketers are busy installing temporary heating, but an industry leader hopes that propane-powered fuel cells will soon give homeowners an alternative to utility provided electricity. "Consumers hit by the yearly power outages are looking for more reliable electricity, and fuel cells could well be the alternative that meets their demand and helps the propane marketers grow their business," said Milford Therrell, chairman of the Propane Education & Research Council.

Unlike an electrical power plant, which creates electricity by burning fuel, a fuel cell converts the energy of a fuel, such as propane, into useable electricity by an electrochemical process that relies on an ion conducting membrane. Coming to a home near you.

Several research laboratories report that affordable, reliable fuel cell technology will soon be available. Fuel cells are being tested on hydrogen and a variety of hydrocarbon fuels, but Therrell believes that propane has several advantages over other fuels, especially for fast-growing rural areas with their high electricity costs and no natural gas service. "The fuel cell, an appliance about the size of a heat pump, when combined with clean-burning propane can give homeowners both electricity and gas service," says Therrell, president of Dallas-based Squibb-Taylor, Inc. "What makes fuel cells attractive is that every homeowner can become their own utility, eliminating those power lines altogether." Fuel cells also offer environmental benefits.

Since a fuel cell generates electricity through an electrochemical process, it does not produce carbon monoxide, or nitrogen or sulfur oxides. Fuel cells are not new; they were actually discovered about 160 years ago. NASA has used fuel cells to generate electricity in spacecraft since the 1960's. However, only with the recent decline in raw materials costs has fuel cell production become commercially possible. Therrell said he is urging the propane industry to invest in research to help position the industry to make the most of fuel cell technology.