Fuel cells have an important role to play in the energy economy

Half way through the Clean and Cool Mission to Colorado, where sixteen UK cleantech start-ups have come to explore business opportunities in the U.S, the fog has finally lifted, and my brain re-emerged from the jetlag and altitude wimpiness; just in time for an epic, real world, snow storm.

However, here is a palpable sense of the future amongst the protagonists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Industry Growth Forum, the premier clean energy investment event in the U.S. It ricochets off the beige walls and flowery carpets of the conference centre. We also saw the same energy and many of the same faces at the Colorado Cleantech Awards celebration last night.

At both events, between the relentless networking – Americans really are good at it – we have been peppered with heart warming facts about the progress of the cleantech sector in the U.S; of the money made and sceptics rebutted by the stars of the day.

My mission here in Colorado is to find partners for the roll-out of fuel cell-based low carbon energy systems. Much has been promised about fuel cells and hydrogen, but the passing joke (exchanged regularly) is that they have been coming to market in 10 years, probably for the last 50. In fact, the reality is that there are many systems being used already, and there are many more opportunities to do business in this sector already.

Despite the challenges, fuel cells have an important role to play in the energy economy. Like batteries, they are efficient electrochemical devices, delivering DC electric power directly from chemical energy without moving parts, noise or vibration. Unlike batteries however, fuel cells can operate continuously, as the energy source is an externally supplied fuel.

In automotive applications, fuel cells can provide the benefits of electric vehicles together with a range, speed of refuelling and performance that is comparable to current passenger cars. Adding fuel cells to electric vehicles allows us to realise the many benefits of battery electric vehicles (such as clean, quiet operation) whilst delivering performance, range and refuelling time that meet customer expectations of current petrol or diesel fuelled vehicles.

This vision is all very well, but once again the “Hydrogen Economy” has also been talked about for many years, with little apparent delivery. Hydrogen is noticeably absent from discussions – the focus is very much on wind, solar, storage, fuels and electric vehicles. Talking to investors who have been in the sector a long time, it is clear that they are biding their time, many having lost money in the last hype-cycle in the early 2000s. The problem, now very well understood, is that you can’t suddenly create an economy, you have to start from somewhere and see what emerges.

The good news is that there are initiatives happening around the world and that this start is being made. In the U.S, Europe, Japan and Korea car companies, gas companies and governments are working together to get vehicles and hydrogen refuelling appearing together. These large scale initiatives are real and encouraging – but they will take some time to be fully implemented.

At Arcola Energy we think that there are things that can be done now to introduce customers to these technologies to open up future markets as the technology matures further. We design, manufacture and deploy hydrogen fuel cell systems and we have products that can be used now. We produce low cost, simple fuel cell platforms for multiple niche applications reducing dependencies on wider initiatives and de-risking investment.

Fuel cells provide long duration, clean electric power generation in off-grid situations. They are particularly suited to environmentally sensitive areas where the use of typical diesel gen-sets is prohibited for noise or pollution reasons. Fuel cell generators can readily be hybridised with wind or solar to provide extremely high levels of autonomy. We are working with partners in the UK to put clean efficient power systems onto construction sites.

I came to Colorado on the mission organised by Technology Strategy Board because there is a dynamic ecosystem here; businesses and research institutes with an open mind to new cleantech. A place where an economy could start to grow. A place where we can find partners to work with. A place with a “can do” attitude because we are confident fuel cell cells “can do”, now.

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Dr Ben Todd is Founder and Managing Director of Arcola Energy, a rapdily growing UK hydrogen fuel cell product development and system integration company, particularly active in the automotive, portable power and education sectors, working with multi-nationals, government agencies and leading tech start-ups.

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