WISCASSET (AP) – A $250,000 demonstration project that produces hydrogen energy to provide backup lighting and warmth at the Chewonki Foundation’s environmental education center was hailed at its unveiling Monday as the first of its kind in the nation.

The nonprofit foundation teamed up with the Portland-based Hydrogen Energy Center to develop the system that was touted as an example of the kind of cutting-edge technology that can reduce dependence on fossil fuels and help ease global warming.

“Hydrogen represents a huge growth industry, and the creation of this partnership will put Maine on the leading edge as this industry expands,” said Gov. John Baldacci, who signed an executive order to promote the development of hydrogen energy in Maine.

The system unveiled at Chewonki uses renewable power – from solar panels atop the center and purchases of “green” electricity – to produce hydrogen from water through a process known as electrolysis. New technology that produces the gas at high pressure eliminates the need for a costly compressor.

Developers of the system said it’s the nation’s first publicly accessible direct high-pressure hydrogen energy system as well as the first complete hydrogen energy system in Maine.

Because hydrogen is flammable, the electrolyzer and eight cylinders with an overall capacity of 2,080 cubic feet of the gas are stored in a wood and concrete shed in the woods behind the center.

The gas is then piped into the center, where three fuel cells can each convert it into one kilowatt of electricity. That power will be available in the event of an outage to supply four days’ worth of lighting, operation of the building’s water pump and warmth for animals that include a turtle, an iguana and an alligator.

“We’ve tried to resist placing a cost per kilowatt-hour on this because it would be meaningless at this point,” said Peter Arnold, Chewonki’s project director.

The project, which took more than two years to complete, was designed to demonstrate how hydrogen can be generated, stored and used to provide energy. Funding was provided by the Maine Technology Institute, as well as government sources and private donors.

While the hydrogen generator is educational in nature, speakers at the ceremony indicated that commercial applications for the technology are beginning to emerge.

Maine Oxy in Auburn will be using a much larger version of the Chewonki electrolyzer to produce both hydrogen and oxygen that it plans to sell. At Chewonki, the oxygen produced when water is split into its two components is discarded.

Citing predictions that global demand for fuel cell products will grow exponentially in the next few years, Baldacci signed the order creating the Maine Hydrogen Energy Fuel Cell Partnership.

The governor said the partnership will work to speed the development of hydrogen-related technology in Maine, look at ways to leverage federal research funds and seek to spur interest of private businesses in hydrogen energy and fuel cell products.

Other speakers, including U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, joined Baldacci in predicting that Maine can enhance its economy by pursuing a leadership role in advancing the use of hydrogen and other alternative energy technologies.

“We are definitely on the cutting edge,” Michaud said, suggesting that Maine can help point the nation in a new direction in meeting its needs for energy.

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