Fuel Cell Gap

by Martin Harris

You might think that, in a State where a highly-visible, highly-articulate, and highly-vocal politically-dominant sector of the population never misses an opportunity to make its views known on commercial energy corporations, power distribution grids and pipelines, and in-ground energy sources (against) and on “getting off the grid”, local self-sufficiency, and paying more to use less (for) there would be lots of enthusiasm for fuel cells, a fairly new technology whereby devices powered by natural gas use advanced membrane technology to generate both heat and electrical power at any scale from the domestic to the industrial, both stationary and vehicular; but you’d be wrong. On the Vermont page of the FuelCells.org web site, to Vermont’s credit it’s reported only that “the State is home to at least five companies…that contributed more than $142,000 in State and local revenue…during 2011.” Not impressive. In contrast, Utah is a “top State” for Stationary Power (planned) and South Carolina is a “top State” for Fuel Cell Policies and Connecticut is a “top State” for Fuel Cell patents, but Vermont, enviro self-image notwithstanding, isn’t a top State for anything in the fuel cell field. Just like Wyoming and West Virginia, both leading coal-production States.

There’s been a spate of articles in the print media, recently, on fuel cells ––everything from how they work to how, using them, “Companies Unplug from the Grid”, to quote a recent Wall Street Journal report, but Vermont isn’t on the cutting edge in this endeavor. Japan is: it has gotten substantial publicity recently for the comparatively widespread adoption of residential fuel cell technology in the wake of recent nuclear-generation woes (think Fukushima) and relatively high rate-payer bills. Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan (2011) “includes several recommendations to assess, introduce, and utilize fuel cells in vehicles and stationary power” but the language is all future- no present-tense. In contrast, similarly-blue-State Washington is already a “top State” for fuel cell-powered busses, as is red-State Texas. Swing-State Ohio is a “top State” for Stationary Power Installed”, a credit you’d think anti-nuke, anti-grid, anti-(nearby) wind Vermont would have easily achieved. Similarly for subsidized public bussing: you’d think a State like Vermont, a national leader in this respect, would have earned “top State” recognition for FC busses, but apparently not. All these State-by-State recognitions and future plans are in the State of the States 2012 part of the FuelCells.org website.

The economic feasibility of fuel cell usage, like that of wind and solar, has been improving in recent years, although it still can’t compete with fossil- or nuclear- or, now, even natural-gas- generated power, but that hasn’t stopped the environmental movement from urging adoption of more expensive power sources anyway, and further begs the question of Vermont’s lack of interest, at the grass-roots, mini-farm, local-vore, self-sufficiency level, in adopting now-available fuel cell technology. Japan has much higher rural population densities than Vermont, and domestic fuel cell usage there has drawn considerable US MainStreamMedia attention.

At the “life-style” (as opposed to the economic) side of the power-choice debate, it’s long been an argument of the environmentalist/self-sufficiency/resource-depletion-apprehensive/local-is-better sector that such actions as “return-to-the-land”, avoidance of corporate entanglements, and Nature-friendly stewardship of basic necessities should be embraced, the sooner the better. Consider this quote from “America Now”, a Marvin Harris (no known kinship) discussion of (mostly adverse-trending) urban-suburban (not much rural) sociology from 1981:

Must we then give up the American Dream? Is there no way to avoid the known penalties of bureaucracy and oligopoly? Yes, there is a way. And that is to reverse the centralizing trend of industrialization. Resolution of America’s cultural crisis could conceivably take the form of encouraging the development of small-scale private enterprises, manned by hard-driving, efficient, profit-sharing work teams producing enough of a surplus to pay for first-class educational and community services as well as for the compassionate care of the sick and elderly.

He finishes his summary-question with this “…knowledge of the unwanted and detested features of the centralizing scenarios rationally compels us to consider the alternative of radical decentralization.” And few actions embrace “radical decentralization” as well as going off the power grid (which Vermont enviro’s want) via fuel cells (which, apparently, they don’t).

When Vermont chose to re-picture and present itself as “the beckoning country” in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, it was both leading and following just that sort of rhetoric, which, by the time of publication, had already re-made the State’s political coloring from red to blue. Fuel cells were then laboratory experiments, and now they’re off-the-shelf purchases, so the question remains unanswered: why the grass-roots reluctance to embrace fuel cell technology in Vermont? The best your Humble Scribe can come up with is the decentralization concept, a key piece of the self-sufficiency puzzle, but one which became so politically-incorrect with the advent of “smart growth” (small-lot and relatively high-density) as an antidote to decentralization re-labeled as “sprawl” that it led to the legal demise of Vermont’s once-famous-among-decentralist-theorists 10-acre lot approvals. Maybe the current generation of enviro’s sees fuel cells as antithetical to their newest ideology, smart growth. Technically, it isn’t, but ideology typically trumps science.