How Cost Effective are Methanol Fuel Cells?

IdaTech's new 250 watt methanol fuel cell generator generates power at a rate that is 10 times higher than the normal price of AC power from your wall socket, it's reasonable for standby and field use.

Published: 02-Jan-2008

IdaTech, a fuel-cell manufacturer in Oregon, announced a smallish new fuel-cell power supply today, the 250-watt iGen. The announcement caught my eye because I've written here a few times about fuel cells and other alternative energy sources (including the nuclear reactor piece last week), and this time I was able to figure out the device's approximate cost of operation, something that usually isn't disclosed for fuel cells.

The iGen's 250-watt output rating doesn't sound like a lot, but it's over half an average person's home electricity consumption. A continuous supply of 250 watts adds up to about 180 kilowatt-hours (kWh) over the course of a month. According to 2001 data from the Department of Energy (PDF), per-capita household electricity use was about 316 KWH/month. (And that figure is declining as home builders use more insulation and appliances get more efficient.)

IdaTech makes other fuel-cell power supplies that can power your whole house, but most of us have access to reasonably reliable power from the local electric utility. So the iGen's more relevant applications are for standby power, field and military use, and other situations where utility power isn't available. In these situations, 250 watts is probably enough for most purposes, although you'd want to use batteries to provide a temporary supply of higher power.

So the iGen is at least in the right ballpark on output power, how is it on operating cost?

I've seen a lot of fuel cells that run on methanol, but the iGen data sheet (PDF) was the first time I've seen a company make specific promises about both power output and fuel consumption.

The numbers are pretty straightforward: 250 watts for one hour from 500 ml of fuel consisting of a 1.1:1 blend of water with methanol. This works out to just about one liter of methanol per kilowatt-hour.

I did some shopping around online and found that the basic price of 99.95 percent methanol is about a dollar per liter when purchased in 55-gallon drum quantities. Assuming this pricing applies to the quality of fuel required by the iGen, it puts a lower limit on the cost of electricity from the iGen at around a dollar per kilowatt-hour. It's possible the iGen can run on lower-purity methanol, just as it's possible it requires higher purity--I'm writing this on New Year's Eve, so I haven't tried to contact the company. (I also have no idea how much the iGen costs, so caveat lector.)

But while this figure is 10 times higher than the normal price of AC power from your wall socket, it's reasonable for standby and field use.

So if you're looking into standby power generators--especially DC-output models like the iGen--maybe it's time to consider fuel-cell generators.

Peter N. Glaskowsky is the chief system architect at Montalvo Systems, a Silicon Valley microprocessor-design start-up. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET.

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