Japanese electronics company Matsushita, best known for its Panasonic line of home electronics and appliances, will claim first place in the race to put commercial home fuel cells on the market, but a slew of other companies are in tow.

The fuel cell can optimally provide 70 percent of the energy needs for a 1,280 square foot house with four people. According to Matsushita, the cell can reduce energy consumption by 22 percent and CO2 emissions by 12 percent as compared to all other power sources. The unit is guaranteed to last 40,000 hours, which amounts to ten years of operation, roughly the same amount of time it will take a consumer in Japan to recoup their initial investment. (The government will subsidize the purchase, although how much remains undetermined. The company estimates a $10,000 investment by consumers.)

Customers will purchase the fuel cell system from a local gas company, who will install it, a fairly simple process says Matsushita.

While fuel cell technology takes many different forms, in this case, the cogeneration home fuel cell hooks up to the city’s natural gas lines, extracting hydrogen from the gas in a fuel-processing device. The stream of hydrogen is combined with oxygen through a series of polyelectrolyte membranes, a process that creates electricity, heat, and water. The home fuel cell produces between 500 watts and a 1 kilowatt of electricity and captures the heat to warm a tank of water, used for showers, dishes etc.

The company views the product as a contribution to Japan’s goals of reducing global CO2 emissions 50 percent by 2050.

Matsushita was evasive, however, about the amount of energy required to manufacture its fuel cell. In general fuel cells require a great deal of energy; for example, this unit contains more than 2,000 components. Whether the production of the units negates the energy and CO2 savings gained by customers is unclear.

Could the home fuel cell work in the US today? It could. With a few tweaks to the voltage and filters that deal with impurities in the natural gas, technically speaking, the fuel cell would work. Will it be here soon? They say there are no specific plans, but Matsushita hopes to make the home fuel cell available in the EU, Africa, China, and the Americas sooner than later.

Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008