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Germany

The Power Station in the Basement

It sounds like the a conservationist's fantasy but in 100 homes across Europe the personal power station is taking its first tentative steps towards becoming a widely-used future source of green power.

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Ralph-Dieter Feigel checks the fuel cell which powers his home

Electricity, heating and hot water created in an environmentally friendly way by a home power station? It sounds like the stuff of dreams, but the first prototype fuel cells have been created and testing is underway in what could be a breakthrough for energy production and conservation.

At the forefront of the new technology is Berlin biology teacher Ralph Dieter Feigel. But from standing in his cellar it would be hard to imagine that you were in the company of one of the 21st century's leading pioneers in alternative fuel production. Only a computer monitor next to the hidden fuel cell suggests all is not as it seems.

From his basement, Feigel sends the results and failures of his decentralized energy source via the computer to the German fuel institute in the town Freiberg and to Dresden's Technical University. Both institutions keep the home power station running smoothly.

Electro-chemical reaction key

Dusche

Water for heating and washing is heated by the cell's electro-chemical reaction

But how does it all run? For decentralized energy production to work within a residential building, the most important thing needed is a natural gas connection. Hydrogen is taken from the natural gas and combined with oxygen in the fuel cell to create an electro-chemical process. This creates steam and warmth which is used to heat the house and the water for showers and baths.

"This principle has been known about for more than 160 years but so far it hasn't been able to be developed on such a large scale," says Stephan Krein, an expert on fuel cells at the VNG energy company in Leipzig.

The prototypes of the fuel cells Feigel uses in his house are currently far too expensive and their lifespan too short to be considered for general use. Each cell lasts for three years and costs 10,000 euros. For the average family, this fuel source isn't even an option right now.

Future looks bright

But industry experts and scientists agree that the research costs are well worth the price because the results to date are very encouraging. It is estimated that, at the current rate of progress, the fuel cells could go into mass production within a decade.

Sulzer Hexis, the Swiss manufacturer of the mini-power stations, has over 100 test cells powering homes across Europe. The Feigels are very happy to be one of them.

"We pay 20 percent less for gas than we would normally and we are hardly damaging the environment," says 51-year-old Ralph.

Schnee in Freiburg

The cells don't currently create enough heat to deal with the German winter

However, the cell creates a kilowatt of electricity and 2.5 kilowatts in thermal energy. "This isn't very much during the winter but we have an additional device to keep things warm in the house when it's frosty outside."

Despite the advantages, the family has already experienced the downsides of the new fuel cells. They have had to replace it three times since 2003. "The first one lasted just six months," Feigel says. At the end of 2006, when the test phase comes to an end, the Feigels will revert back to a normal heating system again.

At least they will still have a naturally warm feeling generated inside from doing their bit to further the pursuit of environmentally and sustainable alternative energy sources.

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