A visibly angry Governor Newsom said it is “infuriating beyond words” that despite California’s innovation and entrepreneurial capabilities we have to live with power blackouts. ("State’s big utilities calling the shots on power outages," Oct 27).

The governor need only look 5 miles from Sacramento’s State Capitol buildings at the California Fuel Cell Partnership for an innovative approach. Fuel cells may be the answer to get all homes “off the grid.”

Fuel cells generate electric power directly without combustion, and the “emissions” are water, not carbon dioxide. New developments allow them to run on methane at reasonable temperatures so we no longer have to build a hydrogen gas delivery infrastructure.

The goal could be to distribute electric generation to each household and disconnect them from the power grid. This means building or retrofitting each of California’s 12 million housing units with an individual fuel cell the size of three shoe boxes to generate 3 kilowatts of electricity for each household, which is more power than most homes use. Of course, this applies to commercial buildings as well.

What would this accomplish? Eliminate fossil-fueled electric power plants that emit greenhouse gases. Eliminate high voltage power lines and grid that pose wildfire risks. Eliminate the electric power grid as a target for terrorists. Eliminate overhead electric distribution lines to homes and businesses that are local fire and safety hazards. Eliminate widespread blackouts. Eliminate a huge amount of the greenhouse gas methane, and flaring at refineries, by using methane in fuel cells. Eliminate dependence on China for solar panels. Eliminate loss of solar power at night or need for back-up batteries that have huge carbon footprint to manufacture and require rare earth metals from China. Eliminate one-third of PG&E by dropping their letter E so we will have only Pacific Gas remaining.

Why has this solution evaded us for so long? In a word – cost.

First was the cost of hydrogen infrastructure. But this has been overtaken by innovation that allows fuel cells to run directly on natural gas or methane, which is already delivered to two-thirds of all California homes. So then little new infrastructure is needed.

Second, the cost of fuel cells was once prohibitive. Now the costs are projected to be cut by 75% to $53 per kilowatt unit if 500,000 units are built. With a demand of 12 million households the cost per home could be cut even more substantially. And by replacing the use of hydrogen with methane/natural gas the operating costs of fuel cells will be driven much lower.

So, governor, the innovation you seek is right down the road from your office. And it does not have to cost the taxpayers to deploy.

Tom Knepell


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