HEATER: fuel cell

The fuel cell devices in the heating cellar were regarded as a trend before the trade fair ISH. Then, with Vaillant, one of the big heating builders came out.

As a niche market, Bosch Thermotechnik sees the fuel cell heaters and wants to continue offering them on a small scale.Photo: Bosch Thermotechnik

"We are not going to launch any fuel cell heaters this year and put the development activities in fuel cells on the line," Vaillants CEO of Sales, Marketing and Service, Andree Groos, gave a press conference during the ISH In Frankfurt. This means that one of the major players in heating appliances is lagging behind the market segment, which has hitherto been described as a trend.

Manufacturers such as Buderus, Viessmann and Senertec, on the other hand, announced the well-known message: "Fuel cells are a promising future technology." And the fuel cell working group of the Verband Deutscher Maschinen- und Anlagenbauer (VDMA) is even sure the fuel cell has arrived on the market.
The fact that the acquisition costs for fuel cell heaters represent an obstacle is generally accepted. "The total price - regardless of the provider - is high due to the technical concept: there is a lot of energy, a condensing boiler plus the complete fuel cell," says Uwe Glock, CEO of Bosch Thermotechnik. For Andree Groos, however, the costs are even "significantly too high to come to pieces". There is a lack of scale effects that could lead to falling costs in the foreseeable future.
The heart of the fuel cell - the so-called "stack" - is a major cost factor. In the case of low-temperature fuel cells, this is mainly due to the platinum catalyst, even if the demand for precious metal has been steadily reduced in recent years. On the other hand, high-temperature fuel cells based on solid oxide (SOFC) and molten carbonate (MCFC) dispense with platinum. These have been intensively developed since the 1990s and have become market-ready. As a "younger" technology in the market, SOFCs would benefit mainly from scale effects. For the stack of Dresdner Sunfire GmbH, for example, costs have fallen by two thirds since 2010.
The VDMA sees potential here. With the latest funding instrument of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy, the currently high acquisition costs of the equipment part would be intercepted. These scalene effects would be set in motion and could lead to a sustained cost reduction.
The KfW program 433 has been supporting the acquisition of fuel cell heaters since the end of 2016 with a fixed amount of € 5700 as well as a further € 450 per 100 W electrical power.If a complete system for single-family houses now costs between € 30,000 and € 35,000, the VDMA promises to cut costs by up to 2023 by means of higher sales figures and will then have a total of 140,000 fuel cell heaters in operation in Germany.
Only about 1000 devices are currently installed. In comparison to this, sales of heating heat pumps alone amounted to around 66,500 units last year. "The fuel cell heater does not move in large numbers, we do not expect any major changes here," says Glock von Bosch.
Vaillant is now drawing a final line and adopting the heat pump for the time being from the fuel cell. The company is investing € 54 million in a new research center and will focus its development activities on "heat pumps and renewable energies". This puts the manufacturer on line with estimates of thinks such as Agora Energiewende. This has suggested to support the heat transfer to electric heat pumps."By 2030, Germany needs 5 million to 6 million heat pumps," predicts Agora. For Andree Groos it is clear: "Electricity is the new green and the time window for the fuel cell is closing."
Sunfires CEO Carl Berninghausen rejects this assessment. He sees in such statements the wrong signals set. "Electrifying the entire hot water market by means of heat pumps leads to the energy-political dead end, since renewable electricity is rarely available in winter. Renewable gas, on the other hand, can guarantee supply security throughout the year. "
For a so-called dark-louvre, if, for several days, neither solar energy nor wind energy is sufficiently available, conventional power plants would have to start in the cold season. The heat pumps also heat with this current, but are no longer ecologically sensible. Fuel cells in combination with power-to-gas - that is, the technology to store energy, for example, by electrolysis in the form of hydrogen - and the well-developed German gas network offer themselves here as a long-term storage solution of green electricity.
The VDMA sees fuel cells and heat pumps as less than two competitors, but rather as two technologies that can complement each other sensibly. Because heat pumps play their advantages above all in passive or low-temperature buildings, fuel cell heaters are also suitable for old buildings.
Viessmann points to the current greatest advantage of fuel cell technology: "We consider the fuel cell to be the most innovative form of combined heat and power generation. We measure their great future potential by not only increasing the autonomy of the operator through decentralized heat and power generation, but also relieving the nets. "
Bosch remains faithful to the fuel cell heating appliances, albeit to a lesser extent: "It is more a niche market, but we will continue to serve it," says Glock.
Low-temperature as well as high-temperature fuel cells have passed the suitability test for the energy supply in the home.In the Callux-Praxistest over seven years, almost 500 fuel cell heaters have collected more than 5 million operating hours.