After reporting a massive loss in sales to the domestic sector, Electricité de France, the world’s largest utility, announced today that its survival would depend on selling power to business customers. The global energy industry has been through a decade marked by consolidation and technological development.
While solar and wind power held promise as potential alternative energy sources, it was the development of microbial fuel cells that sounded alarm bells in the utilities.
The discovery of a lowly bug found in marine environments, created the tipping point for alternative domestic power. This little microbe gobbles up sugar and converts it to electricity with a higher efficiency than any other known organism.
The dream of ‘free’ electricity is now a reality for the average home user, and compost genera-tors one of the decade’s most successful products. Surplus electricity produced by smallholdings and larger properties is sold back to the national grid. Within two years, energy for hospitals, schools and streets is expected to be provided by bacterial fuel.
As a result, the utilities have dwindled to being distributors of excess power, relying on factories and other business customers for their survival.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
1960s: NASA puts fuel cells to practical use
While the concept of fuel cells has been around for more than a hundred years, the first practical fuel cells were developed for the United States space program in the 1960s. The space program required an efficient, reliable and compact energy source for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and the fuel cell was a good fit.
2000: Fuel cells light Times Square
The Durst Organization announces that fuel cells have begun providing supplemental power at its new signature building at 4 Times Square in New York City, the Condé Nast Building. The two truck-sized fuel cells are tucked away on an unoccupied floor of the building. Together they generate 400 kilowatts of electricity, which normally will provide a portion of the building’s general power requirements. However, if there is a utility blackout, the systems are capable of operating independent of the utility grid to maintain power to critical mechanical components and external landmark signage on the facade of the building. The signs will be bright even in a blackout, with environmentally friendly, off-grid power.
2002: Sugar and slugs power robot fuel cells
Scientists at the Intelligent Autonomous Systems Laboratory (IAS) at the University of West of England develop a bacterial fuel cell that runs entirely on sugar. The cell feeds a robot called ‘Ecobot’ that follows light around a room and must learn to collect its own energy supply. Ecobot’s design is based on a similar robot ‘trained’ to gather slugs to feed the biodigestor powering its energy system. The microbial fuel cell uses E.coli bacteria that feeds off sugar. As the bacteria break down their food, electrons are produced and captured to power two motors. The motors move the robot towards light sources in burst motions.
Energy costs from utilities continue to increase. Pilot projects in the USA have private homeowners installing private generators and fuel cells to ensure continuity of supply. They are the first to sell excess current generated back into the grid, using two meters and paying only the net amount consumed.
2003: Huge advances in alternative energy>
The first bacterial fuel cell is developed: in a Pentagon-supported project, scientists Swades Chaudhuri and Derek Lovely of the University of Massachusetts, announce they have recovered a tiny bacterium from sediment. This primitive microbial fuel cell can convert simple sugars into electricity with 81% efficiency. Unlike previous attempts to manufacture fuel cell batteries, their design does not require unstable intermediaries to shuttle electrons, and holds promise for producing energy from sugar-containing waste materials. The fuel cell prototype is enough to power a tiny lamp. This conversion has a higher efficiency than any previously known organism. Harmless carbon dioxide gas is produced as a by-product.
Manufacturing adopts fuel cells: EnBW installs a fuel cell at the Michelin Plant in Karlsruhe. The fuel cell has the electrical capacity of 250 kW and a thermal capacity of 180 kW. It produces steam at 200°C used for the vulcanization of tyres.
In August, the USA suffers the worst power blackout in history. Shares in alternative energy companies soar as much of the North East staggers back. The blackout highlights our dependency on conventional grid power and adds weight to the urgency to find alternative off-grid sources.
In October, UK power chiefs warn Government of widespread blackouts within four years. The industry is divided on which way to handle the looming power crisis. ScottishPower and Powergen want Government to provide incentives for generating companies to keep operating their least efficient plants. French-owned EDF is against a return to capacity payments, which were scrapped in 2001.
Also in October, hydrogen fuels cells advance, when the Alternate Energy Corporation (AEC) announces the results of its highly anticipated hydrogen ‘purity testing’. The hydrogen program achieves the purity goal ahead of schedule. The result pave the way for immediate fuel cell testing. AEC’s low-cost hydrogen production system will help enable residential and commercial customers generate their own electricity off-grid, at on-grid competitive prices. Affordable hydrogen and fuel cell systems are the only necessary components to grid-free power that compares in price and quality to grid power. Just as the cellphone industry has freed residential and business telephone users from copper wires run to their homes, AEC is working to free these same customers from utility power.
2004: More winter power blackouts
There is a growing sense of urgency to find viable alternative energy sources, as much of the UK and USA suffers week-long powercuts through the coldest part of the winter.
2005: Deregulation gathers pace>
The previous winter’s power cuts have been a powerful catalyst to get governments worldwide to deregulate the provision and distribution of electricity. This opens the door to massive private sector initiatives, using the latest technology.
2008: Bacterial fuel cells enter mass production>
Bacterial fuel cells become more efficient and offer a viable economic alternative for home users.
There are emerging future trends: not least towards self-sufficiency, environmental sensitivity and more fractal organisations. Bacterial fuel cell production is a prime example of a fractal model: fuel cells can be manufactured in small units and power generation can be distributed throughout the grid, providing improved stability and self-sufficiency. Excess energy produced can be redistributed into the grid.
2011: Compost generator sales soar>
Sales of domestic compost makers, which produce electricity through organic waste, hit record levels: they are one of the decade’s most successful products. Fuel cell units are now used by 50% of US households. 35% of households in the developed world have a compost generator in the back yard. The dream of ‘free’ electricity for the average home user becomes a reality.
There is a strong uptake in bacterial fuel cell technology in developing countries. Manufacturing is rapidly moving from South-East Asia to East Asia, particularly mainland China. Fuel cell technology is attractive in places where power grids are less reliable and blackouts common.
2014: Bacterial fuel cell farms
Fuel cell farms thrive as power is sold to urban communities. Surplus electricity produced by smallholdings and larger properties is sold back to the national grid.
The waste disposal industry equally blossoms. The bacteria Rhodoferax Ferrireducens is found in iron-rich soil and is partial to a variety of sugars including xylose, a common waste product in sectors such as paper manufacturing. The bacteria has the potential to remove every last scrap of waste. It is the most efficient effluent treatment by far, completely oxidizing sugar to carbon dioxide and water.
2016: Big power companies fight for survival>
Within two years, energy for hospitals, schools and streets is expected to be provided by bacterial fuel cells. The utilities have dwindled to being distributors of excess power, relying on factories and other business customers for their survival.