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Fuel Cells

Fuel cells, which work like storage batteries to produce electricity from a chemical reaction, have taken many years of research and development to bring them to even limited use. They are attractive sources of electricity because they are efficient and do not pollute the air. In addition, fuel cell power plants can be located close to where electricity would be used, thereby reducing transmission line costs.

The Electric Power Research Institute and the federal government are researching ways to improve fuel cell efficiency and to lower capital costs. They are funding a 4.8 MW commercial prototype fuel cell that is being evaluated by Consolidated Edison of New York. Additional research is needed to verify that fuel cell systems have adequate endurance and that their costs are competitive enough to assure commercialization.1


Nuclear fusion, the atomic process that powers the sun and stars, was first documented by physicists at Britain's Cavendish Laboratory in 1932. Since then, researchers across the world have been trying to develop techniques to reproduce the fusion reaction, and ultimately harness its energy to generate electricity.

That goal remains elusive. Within the next few years fusion researchers are expected to demonstrate that they can induce a sustained fusion reaction where more energy is produced than the amount of energy it takes to induce the reaction. Still, experts project that the earliest debut of a practical fusion power station might take place no earlier than the year 2025.2

Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion

The Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) concept is based on utilizing the temperature difference between warm surface water and cold deep water to vaporize a fluid such as ammonia or propane. This vapor would then be used to drive a turbine generator.3

Although OTEC turbine generators have been operated, three fundamental problems remain. First, the temperature differentials between bodies of water and air are so slight that a huge device is required to extract the energy, thereby limiting OTEC's economic feasibility. Second, many unknowns exist regarding how lightly built seafaring equipment will perform over time in the face of storms and corrosion. Third, energy produced in the open ocean must be stored and transported for use onshore -- untested and invariably expensive tasks.4

A handful of small OTC power systems have been constructed since 1980, but no commercial OTEC units exist now or are under construction. OTEC is at an early stage in its development, and based on the present status of technology its utilization through the year 1995 is expected to be quite low.5

Wave Power

The possibility of obtaining useful energy from waves has been pursued for several hundred years. Floats, buoys, pipes, pumps, and vanes have all been developed to convert waves into energy, but few have ever been operated.

Attempts to harness the energy from waves (which are created by winds passing across the open water) have been plagued by unresolved technical problems and economic uncertainties. It is an expensive and difficult energy source to collect, transport, store, and integrate into an existing energy system. With the eventual resolution of these problems, wave power could become an important energy source on a regional basis.6

Tidal Power

A tidal power system operates in much the same way as a hydroelectric plant. A dam is constructed across a coastal inlet and the incoming tide runs through turbines in the dam, turning a generator to produce electricity. As the tide drops, the water runs out of the reservoir and back through the turbines, again producing electricity.

Although a major advantage of tidal power is its "free" and non-polluting energy source (water), there are a limited number of places in the world where the difference in elevation between low and high tide is great enough to justify construction. And even some of these sites have drawbacks: they have more desirable uses and are too far from areas where power is needed.7

1 Edison Electric Institute, "Alternative Energy Sources and Technologies," op. cit., pp. 34-35.
2 Robert C. Cowen, "Why Researchers Struggle to Unlock Fusion's Potential," Christian Science Monitor, April 28, 1987, p. 19. Also see, Stephen O. Dean, "Closing in on Fusion," in Nuclear Power, Both Sides, op. cit., and Lawrence Lidsky, "The Trouble With Fusion," Technology Review, October 1983.
3 Edison Electric Institute, "Alternative Energy Sources and Technologies," op. cit., p. 39.
4 Ibid, pp. 40-41, and Peirce, op. cit., pp. 261-261.
5 Energy Security, op. cit., p. 206.
6 Henry W. Kendall and Steven V. Nadis (Eds.), Energy Strategies: Toward A Solar Future, Union of Concerned Scientists, (Cambridge: Ballinger Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 188-190.
7 Edison Electric Institute, "Alternative Energy Sources and Technologies," op. cit., p. 41.