Bend Firm Generates Interest in Fuel Cells

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), December 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bend Firm Generates Interest in Fuel Cells


Byline: SCOTT MABEN The Register-Guard

They threw Isaac a going-away party Thursday at LaneElectric Cooperative's headquarters in west Eugene. The guests nibbled on cookies while he slurped a methanol milkshake.

Isaac is the name the office staff gave the refrigerator-sized fuel cell system that has been humming away in the lobby since Oct. 17.

After seven weeks of showing what it can do, the high-tech power generator is on its way to Roseburg for another exhibition at an electric co-op.

"It's been really fun having him here," said Mary Wirtz, manager of member and regional affairs for LaneElectric. "People - in Eugene in particular - are very interested in alternative energies."

The fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen, the very molecules of water, to produce electricity with virtually no pollution. It also generates some heat, which can be used for water heaters.

It can run on a variety of fuels - methanol, ethanol, methane, propane, kerosene and diesel - and produce up to three kilowatts of power directly for a home as well as charge batteries for use when demand peaks.

It has powered heaters, fans, lights, computers, a TV and other appliances at the utility, catching the eye of customers curious about how it works and how they can get one.

Designed and built by Bend-based IdaTech, the fuel cell unit remains in the development stage and isn't expected to be for sale for several more years.

"There's a lot to be done on these systems to make them capable of providing primary power to a home," said Gordon Gregory, IdaTech's communications director.

When it does hit the market, it is likely to appeal to rural residents who rely on conventional fuel generators, which are noisier and dirtier, as well as those who want to build on land but don't want to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost to hook up to the nearest power line.

Prototypes of IdaTech's residential fuel cell systems are popping up in utilities around the Northwest, both to help test the units and to drum up interest in the emerging technology.

The company sold 100 units, costing about $30,000 each, to the federal Bonneville Power Administration as part of a development phase to make fuel cell systems available for home and small commercial use by 2003.

The BPA split the cost with customers who wanted to give the units a whirl. That included the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, which represents LaneElectric and 14 other electric co-ops.

PNGC is showcasing its fuel cell unit in each of its members' headquarters. It was previously shown at Blachly-Lane Electric Co-op, which serves part of western Lane County, and Consumers Power in Philomath.

Some people can't seem to wait for the product to be available, Roger Manke of PNGC said.

"I had one lady say, `Well how much is it?' She had her checkbook out and was ready to buy it," Manke said.

Through the same BPA program, Emerald People's Utility District, serving rural areas outside Eugene-Springfield, received the first model a year and a half ago and recently replaced it with the second generation. It's set up in the utility's Eugene warehouse and is available for the public to see. …

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