energy

Why have I never heard of the Ene-Farm?

While reading up on architecture in Japan recently, I came across a technology that I hadn’t heard of before: the Ene-Farm. It’s a domestic energy system that is being used in Japan and so far doesn’t seem to be available elsewhere, and it makes me curious. What is it, and why doesn’t anyone know about it?

First – what is an Ene-Farm? It’s a unit about the size of a refrigerator that provides heat and power. It draws on the gas grid, turns the gas into hydrogen, and then provides electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell. The heat generated in the conversion is captured and used for heating or for hot water.

The unit itself is often set up to run off a solar installation, but it still uses gas as a feedstock, making it a kind of hybrid system for domestic energy. Despite the use of fossil fuels, there are a number of real advantages. The most important is that the electricity is generated on site, so there are no losses in transmission. It’s a whole lot better than generating that power in a gas-fueled power station and then getting it to the point of use.

Secondly, it’s very efficient. When the heat and power are co-generated, an Ene-Farm can deliver 95% efficiency – an impressive figure for any technology. For comparison, the grid in Japan delivers heat and power with 40% efficiency.

When you put this together, households running an Ene-Farm basically cut their carbon footprint from domestic energy in half. When combined with solar power, manufacturers reckon the savings are nearer 60%.

Another useful feature is that the Ene-Farm is a smart system that can run when needed, and then pause during times of peak demand. Households can save money by running it overnight and taking advantage of lower energy prices, and then using the power from the fuel cell during the day. It also helps to moderate demand, which is one of the big challenges when trying to incorporate renewable energy into the grid. The benefits aren’t just for the household running the technology – the more homes have an Ene-Farm, the easier it is to manage the grid.

Finally, because they have this mini-power station between them and the grid, households with an Ene-Farm don’t get powercuts. And that is the main reason why they have proved popular in Japan. Post-Fukushima, Japan began mothballing its nuclear power plants and there was an energy shortfall for a while. For those that could afford it, the Ene-Farm kept the lights on, and the government supported their roll-out because of the benefits to the grid.

That partly answers question two, the question of why we don’t use these ourselves. The Japanese government has supported hydrogen fuel cell technology, with Ene-Farms just one small part of that. The decline of nuclear power in Japan has driven a search for new solutions and greater efficiency. So there are incentives, and a sense of urgency around energy efficiency that we just don’t have in Britain. Japan essentially switched off a third of its electricity supply in 2012, gas took up much of the shortfall, and anything that could reduce transmission loss and get more out the system was actively encouraged. Ene-Farms are part of Japan’s unique energy story.

Will we get them eventually? Maybe, though they won’t be called Ene-Farms. That was a nationwide branding exercise to raise awareness of hydrogen fuel cells, and is unique to Japan. But I suspect we will get domestic hydrogen fuel cell systems one day. We need solutions to renewable heat, we have fairly dramatic transmission loss statistics, and there’s a real carbon saving to be had. They could well be useful – especially if we can combine them with green gas. As far as I’m aware, so far this form of micro-CHP has never got beyond field trials in the UK and Germany.

The next generation of fuel cells, that Panasonic and others are working on, won’t use gas and will be effectively zero carbon. They probably won’t do heat in the same way, but will function more as domestic energy storage to complement renewable energy, and that’s where we are most likely to encounter them.

6 comments

  1. Looks good, though I assume the solar versions don’t run over-night for cheaper supplies.

    Any idea of the cost? That is the big stumbling point.

    1. I couldn’t confirm a figure. Most of the information is in Japanese. One article said $16,000, but it was a few years out of date and I didn’t include it in the article. The impression I get is that it makes more sense to include them in new build homes, as you can do away with the boiler and design around them. Retrofitting them would be more expensive.

      Since Japan builds more new homes than we do, that makes it more viable. The government was also footing 50% of the cost as part of its support for the hydrogen economy. That’s two reasons why I don’t think we’ll adopt them anytime soon, but if the subsidies hold for long enough for the next generation technology to come through, the prices will come down and we might start hearing more about them.

  2. For UK, wouldn’t it be better to spend the equivalent money on PV and storage (if not on your own property, then investing in community schemes via organisations like Ethex)?

    And regarding electrolysis-created hydrogen (as Panasonic are pushing), I think it’s still not clear whether the significant technical and economic hurdles can be overcome. Chris Goodall (www.carboncommentary.com) could have a good perspective on this; he was analysing far-eastern countries’ emphasis on fuel cells and micro-chp in his early book ‘how to live a low carbon life’, and he closely tracks current developments in technology and economics (which is his speciality).

    1. Possibly, though one of the big advantages here is combined heat and power. Solar and storage is the future for electricity, but we’re still lacking efficient solutions for renewable heat, and that’s where it could have a role.

      Yes, Goodall is someone I keep an eye on for updates on fuel cells. His weekly Carbon Commentary newsletters are a very useful source. He writes about it in his latest book, The Switch, and reckons renewable energy to hydrogen is one of the more promising options for storage.

  3. Japan is often rather better at PR than actual ecology, so I’d be careful about taking announcements about this sort of thing at face value. I don’t doubt the utility, just how many are actually used in practice. Do they require a gas main?

    On the other hand I’m in Japan at the moment, so I’ll ask around and see if anyone has got one. They are also fairly distinctive looking at the picture, so I should recognise the is I see them. Will make enquiries. If you have the link to the Japanese story I’ll send it to my wife.

  4. They are coming to the UK and Austria soon. Panasonic just built a European R&D centre. Here’s an article from Bloomberg: Hydrogen for Home Heating Gets A Push in Europe From Panasonic https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-16/panasonic-aims-to-expand-home-fuel-cell-system-market-in-europe

    The biggest Hydrogen/Fuel Cell show in the world takes place at the Hannover Fair every April. This year was the best yet and huge developments are happening every week. Take a look at some of the clips on youtube – search “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Battery Hannover” and be prepared to be amazed.

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