What exactly are "fuel-cell heating systems"?

The Energy Transition is bringing a wave of new jargon into the public realm. This section provides some background on the most important ones, with this week’s edition focusing on "fuel-cell heating systems". A new energy efficiency incentive programme is soon to provide funding for these small power stations designed for private homes. But how does this technology work – and what is so innovative about it?

Illustration: Renwable energies, electric grid and consumers underneath a magnifying glass.© BMWi

This is what it’s all about: The Energy Transition in the heating sector

According to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), the average heating system in a German private home is 17.6 years old. A staggering 1 in 3 installations have been in use since before 1995, which makes them more than 20 years old. This is despite the fact that technologies have evolved a great deal since then, with new heating systems being much more energy-efficient than their vintage counterparts. Which is why boiler rooms and private buildings in Germany must usher in a new era of heating – an era characterised by better energy efficiency and a greater share of renewables. There is huge potential for energy conservation in this area: after all, heating and hot water account for some 40% of Germany’s entire energy consumption.

Anyone willing to replace their old oil-fired heating system can choose from a myriad of modern technologies, including condensing boilers, pellet stoves, or electric heat pumps. Not to forget "fuel-cell heating systems", which came onto the market about two years ago. To help this innovative technology achieve market breakthrough, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy will be launching a new technology-launch programme for fixed fuel-cell heating systems.

Efficient combined-heat-and-power installations that do entirely without combustion

This is how it works: within the fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen react in a controlled way and form water – without any combustion process taking place. This reaction generates both electrical energy and heat. The hydrogen needed for the fuel cell to work is extracted from natural gas with the help of what is called a "fuel reformer". Fuel-cell heating systems can be installed in new or existing buildings, as long as they have a supply of natural gas. Advantages: the underlying electro-chemical process is extremely efficient: more than 90% of the fuel (i.e. the natural gas) fed into the system is converted into electrical and thermal energy. Moreover, this type of installation generates little noise and vibration and does not require much servicing. Disadvantage: for now, fuel cells are too expensive for the mass market.

The name "fuel-cell heating system" is a little inaccurate: anyone fitting a fuel-cell heating system in their boiler room really invests in their own small-scale combined-heat-and-power station, which generates sufficient heat energy for heating and hot water as well as part of the electricity needed to power their oven, washing machine, or electric car. Under the relevant EU Directives, fuel-cell heating systems are defined as highly efficient combined-heat-and power plants. The plant will be at its most efficient if it generates heat and electricity 365 days a year. This makes it possible for private households to become increasingly self-sufficient and thus less dependent on electricity prices. The climate benefits, too: according to the National Organization for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW), the technology helps to cut carbon emissions by about a third (compared to those of a household using electricity from the grid and a gas-fired condensing boiler).

So far, in Germany, fuel-cell heating systems have been mostly used in niche markets, for instance to power caravans and yachts. This is different in other countries, for instance in Japan, where a government-sponsored programme has already been used to fit more than 100,000 installations in private homes.

Research funding for greater momentum: The NIP

Fuel-cell heating systems are now marketable products that have successfully passed field tests to demonstrate their longevity and reliability. In part, this success is attributable to the National Innovation Programme on Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP). This programme is co-funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, and industry, which provides half of the overall budget of 1.4 billion.

Speaking at the general meeting of NIP stakeholders, which was held in Berlin on 1 June, Uwe Beckmeyer, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, highlighted the fact that tremendous progress has been achieved since the programme's inception in 2006: "The NIP covers a whole gamut of fields of applications, ranging from fixed and industrial plants, to energy for private households, all sorts of mobility applications, and specific portable off-grid applications. This opens up many opportunities for use in a wide range of sectors", said Mr Beckmeyer. "The NIP has improved the state-of-the-art of hydrogen and fuel-cell technology, and we have achieved a situation where many applications are ready for the market."