SoCalGas to invest in fuel cell developer Plug Power

America's largest natural gas distribution utility, Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), is to invest $7.5 million in residential fuel cell developer Plug Power.

SoCalGas has been involved in fuel cell research and development for 30 years, and sited the world’s first commercially available fuel cell at the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, Calif., in 1992.

Since June of 1998, Plug Power has operated the world’s first fuel cell-powered home with a system designed to provide the average-sized house with its total electricity needs, independent of the electric utility grid. Initial market launch of this 7 KW system is planned for 2001, with distribution planned in the US and overseas with General Electric, through GE Fuel Cell Systems.

The size of a dishwasher, residential fuel cells convert the energy of a fuel, such as natural gas, into useable electricity. Unlike traditional combustion technology power plants that emit elements causing smog and acid rain, fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical process from which no particulate matter, nitrogen oxides or sulphur oxides are produced.

Furthermore, a significant percentage of heat produced by fuel cells can be captured and used to provide heating and hot water for the home. This nearly doubles a fuel cell’s efficiency when compared to traditional power generation. Residential fuel cells can provide homeowners with lower overall energy costs.

“Fuel cells represent a promising technology to bring the benefits of distributed generation to the homeowner,” said Lee Stewart, president of SoCalGas’ Energy Transportation Services.

“We are excited to be partnering with an aggressive, recognized leader such as Plug Power, who we believe will be successful in the development of residential fuel cells,” Stewart added.

“This agreement establishes a partnership between companies with a shared vision for the future of energy.” said Gary Mittleman, Plug Power president and CEO, “We will bring clean and affordable energy into every home.”

Fuel cells are not new. The principle was first developed in 1839. NASA has used fuel cells to generate electricity in its spacecraft since the 1960s. However, large-scale production of fuel cell devices was, until recently, prohibited by the high cost of raw materials. These costs have dropped considerably in the last few years, making commercialization feasible.

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