My Search for the Incredible Disappearing Fuel Cell

Turn back the clock to 2001. On a hot summer day, I was the staff photographer as my boss, Congressman John Larson, hosted a test drive for members of Congress of a fuel cell-powered SUV on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. To a person, the members were impressed. It was quiet. It had no harmful emissions. It looked normal. And, it didn’t stall on Independence Avenue.

At the time, fuel cells had plenty of hype. In 2002, then-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt told “Meet the Press” that we needed a “Manhattan Project on fuel cells.” President Bush affirmed his commitment to fuel cells in his 2003 State of the Union address. And, Congressman Larson co-founded the Congressional Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Caucus in 2004. The future looked bright.

Fast forward to the present. As someone who closely follows clean energy, it dawned on me that I stopped hearing about fuel cells the moment I left Congressman Larson’s office. Outside of a splashy “60 Minutes” piece on Bloom Energy in 2010, all was quiet on the fuel cell front. After so many years of working for a leading proponent of fuel cells, I wanted to find out why the media wasn’t talking about the industry. So I went to the industry to find out.

I headed to the Fuel Cell Seminar & Expo, hosted at the Mohegan Sun back in November. While I was there, I spoke with a number of industry leaders about the media landscape, as well as the industry’s challenges and opportunities.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Too much hype early on: Like so many promising technologies, its promise was, well, overpromised. In the early stages of the industry, early versions didn’t perform as expected. It’s a lesson any communications professional should understand: don’t let your news releases get ahead of your engineering. Early stage technology companies should maintain an open flow of communications between the R&D, product and marketing/communications teams. That’s why we at Tigercomm place a real value on learning the ins-and-outs of our clients’ technology.

  • Fuel cells work: The early technical issues that kept the industry from living up to its initial expectations have been resolved. For vehicles, range and durability are not issues. Jennifer Sager of UTC Power (which has since been acquired by ClearEdge Power) shared with me that their fleet of 16 fuel cell buses in California, Connecticut and Michigan are all surpassing their expected durability performance with more than 600,000 miles of commercial operation. These proof points have led the California Fuel Cell Partnership to recently publish a road map for buses.

    And reliability is certainly not a problem, as evidenced by performance during Hurricane Sandy. For example, Guy McAree of Ballard Power Systems noted that 17 of the company’s ElectraGen™-ME methanol fuel cell systems performed flawlessly in the Bahamas during the storm, helping to keep the nation’s communications infrastructure up and running.

  • The flexibility of fuel cells provides sizable market opportunities: One of the prime markets for fuel cells is in backup power, especially for telecommunications and especially in areas with unreliable transmission infrastructure.

    Materials handling provides another important market opportunity, such as forklifts. Fuel cells can also be used for automotive purposes, especially with light duty vehicles or fleets that have predictable usage, such as buses.

    Fuel cells are also a good power source for buildings with baseload needs over 400 kW, such as hospitals, colleges and supermarkets. UTC Power’s Sanger reported that a local grocery store was able to keep its refrigeration units operating throughout Hurricane Sandy, thus avoiding a huge loss of perishable goods.

    Ross Bailey, President and CEO of Greenlight Innovation, noted that more near-term opportunities are located internationally. In his view, Asia and Europe better understand how to address the energy challenge ahead. This underscores why he thinks increasing awareness in North America is important.

  • Fuel cells play well with others: The electric grid likes consistent power delivery. With cost-effective energy storage still in development, forward-thinking companies are looking at creative ways to deliver cleaner energy. AREVA Solar is tying their concentrating solar power to coal or natural gas-fired power plants to provide firm capacity. And OWN Energy is teaming with New Jersey Resources to team wind with natural gas.

    Fuel cells have the potential to partner with other renewable sources to provide firm capacity with an even lower emissions profile.

  • Good vibes: When I asked my panel of industry experts to describe the industry in three words, I heard things like “commercial,” “turned a corner,” “maturing,” “on the rise.” The atmosphere at the conference was overwhelmingly positive on the heels of proven performance during a weather catastrophe and market opportunities, especially overseas.

Although the industry is clearly on an upward trajectory, it faces challenges. Below I lay out how marketing communications can be used to overcome those challenges.

The primary challenge identified by several of the people I talked with is increasing awareness. UTC Power’s Jennifer Sanger noted that it’s tough to get excited about a big gray box, especially compared to more visually compelling clean energy sources like wind turbines or solar panels. Gus Block of Nuvera added, “We need to demystify.” 

I imagine this stems from gun shyness over the industry’s initial inability to live up to its hype. However, if the industry is serious about scaling itself up, it needs a proactive communications strategy that engages customers with its value proposition and with policy makers to ensure that it does not get left out in the cold.

Ballard’s Guy McAree also noted the challenge of displacing current technologies because people are comfortable with what they have now. For example, customers are used to backup power with batteries and diesel generators. It’s incumbent upon the industry to make the case for why it’s a better choice. In a larger sense, all renewable technologies are having a tough time displacing fossil fuels because our country has been run on them for the past century. And those traditional industries don’t want to get pushed aside by newer, cleaner technologies without a fight.

Another key challenge is building a hydrogen infrastructure. It’s a chicken-egg dilemma. No one wants to build hydrogen fueling stations if they’re not assured of demand. Conversely, no one wants to invest in fuel cell vehicles if there are no fueling stations. The South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance and California Fuel Cell Partnership are helping to expand the infrastructure in their respective states. However, to achieve hydrogen infrastructure at a national scale, the industry needs to be proactive about helping to create that market demand.

On top of this is the inherent challenge of harnessing hydrogen. While it may be the most abundant element in the universe, it is not readily available in a usable form. Therefore, most hydrogen is generated either through electrolysis of water or by fossil fuel reforming. Some question whether these energy intensive means are harmful to the environment. Fuel cell proponents argue that the reduced particulate matter and carbon emissions of the end use more than offset the emissions profile of manufacturing hydrogen.  

Finally, there is the cost challenge. Most fuel cell technologies use precious metals that are inherently expensive. However, eliminating the billions in government subsidies that are handed to fossil fuels and putting a price on their harmful emissions could easily close the price gap.

These challenges do not stand in the way of the opportunities for the fuel cell industry. 

Nuvera’s Block has been working with fuel cells since 1996 and I think he summed up the opportunity quite well: “We have a window of opportunity with natural gas as a transition fuel to renewable energy. It’s an opportunity to use an abundant resource to kickstart a cleaner energy source without taking our eye off the ball of the renewable energy end goal.”

Most of us agree that an energy mix that is clean, abundant and domestic is the end goal. But that end goal is farther off than many would like to admit. It’s not realistic to “rip off the bandage” and stop using fossil fuels today. What we can do is develop a plan with aggressive yet achievable targets that uses commercially available technologies, like fuel cells, to move us closer to that end goal.

There are three ways the fuel cell industry can help itself and help to achieve that goal:

  1. As an industry, develop a unified message that conveys to policymakers and customers that fuel cells work as a clean, domestic energy source. In a market dominated by entrenched and deep-pocketed fossil fuel interests, a rising tide lifts all boats.
  2. Demystify fuel cells. It’s an elegant technology with great flexibility to meet a multitude of our power needs. For example, UTC Power created a powerful infographic about the uses for fuel cells.
  3. Raise the volume and frequency on how commercial fuel cell technologies are a viable part of the energy mix via more aggressive media outreach, interesting blog posts and other compelling online and digital content. 

Note: Since the Fuel Cell Seminar & Expo, UTC Power was acquired by ClearEdge Power as part of UTC’s restructuring efforts to focus on its core aerospace and building businesses.

Originally posted at Tigercomm – Part One & Part Two

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Brian has developed a reputation as a leading energy communicator by promoting the work of government leaders, NGOs and businesses that are driving the clean energy economy.

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