Thursday, November 8, 2012

Should we stick fuel cells in our fireplaces?

Sonoma's a bit smoky today. Gianna and I ran into a significant cloud of it on East MacArthur around noon, as we were driving back from school with the girls.  One house had two wood stoves running, and the cloud of particulate made the street look like a bomb had gone off.

Sonenshine, Ron.
"Wood-Stove Fad Going Up in Smoke."
San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 6, 1992.   
Gianna and I engaged in a bit of good natured grousing about self-righteous "back to nature" types and the negative consquences of well-intentioned environmental concerns run amok.  The problems posed by residential wood stoves have been known for some time (at least 1992, judging by the SF Chronicle, which notes that up to 25% of the Bay Area's air pollution is due to these stoves). But they're still installed, twenty years later, causing problems.

However, as we talked about it a bit more, we (well, I) recognized that the people who installed wood stoves were probably making a mistake in the right direction.  One significant environmental problem California faces is the transmission of power, not the generation of it.  One advantage of solar is that it can be installed where's it's needed, reducing if not eliminating transmission costs.  Wood stoves are somewhat similar--the particulate is disconcerting but at least the power's being generated where it's being used.

Halstead, Richard.
"Kent Woodlands resident becomes first in county to power home using fuel cell"
Marin Independent Journal, Feb. 18, 2011.
available at
The problem, though, is that once a "technology" like the wood burning stove gets in place, it's hard to dislodge -- there's a cultural path dependence. Reducing the impact of wood stoves encounters significant political resistance, and the people resisting are quite convinced they're morally right.  And the irony is, they're partially right.  Generating power close to its point of use can be a good idea environmentally and economically.  It doesn't just have to merely be via installing solar (which is not that useful during the wood stove time-of-year), but could, instead, theoretically be accomplished by a home fuel cell. Not many have done this yet -- Bruce Raabe of Kent Woodlands in Marin County is one of the first, as the Marin Independent Journal reported last year.  It's pure speculation on my part, but I wonder whether fuel cell technology would see broader adoption were public policy to more directly encourage it (the programs designed to encourage solar, of course, being quite well known at this point).