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Plug Power Builds Fuel Cell Factory

Plug Power Builds Fuel Cell Factory

Are fuel cells catching on? Plug Power, a pioneer in the fuel cell industry incorporated in 1997 with 25 employees, now has 250. The company broke ground this week for a 50,000 square feet manufacturing facility that will double its current space.

The new facility will enable Plug Power to begin beta unit production of Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell systems for field testing starting next year and commercial sale beginning in 2001. "We are literally bursting at the seams," said Plug Power President Gary Mittleman. "With this plant we will be able to meet all of the early commercial product on demand, for worldwide distribution by GE Fuel Cell Systems."

The company, based in Latham, NY, expects to employ 300 persons by the end of the year. A joint venture of DTE Energy (Detroit Edison) and Mechanical Technology, Plug Power earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with GE Power Systems to form "GE Fuel Cell Systems," a joint venture that will sell, install and service Plug Power-designed and manufactured fuel cell systems.

Plug Power has developed a prototype residential fuel cell system that produces more than enough power to meet the energy requirements of an average-sized home. The units will operate on natural gas, propane or methanol and can achieve 40% electrical efficiency in simple-cycle operation. When excess heat generated by the fuel cell is captured and re-used, overall efficiency can reach 70-85%.

Under the terms of the understanding, GE Fuel Cell Systems will distribute Plug Power fuel cells for residential and small commercial power applications worldwide, except for Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. As part of its fuel cell commercialization approach, GE plans to partner with a select number of gas distribution companies, electric utilities, electric service companies and power marketers.

In mass production, a residential fuel cell system is expected to retail for $3,000-5,000. At these prices, fuel cells can generate electricity at 7-10 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on the fuel costs in a given market.

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