Is there such a thing as “the fuel cell industry”? The industry is really a collection of disparate applications and markets. What exactly do companies focused on passenger cars, uninterruptible power, energy storage, residential power, or forklifts have in common? One thing that the hosts of this year’s Fuel Cell Seminar & Energy Exposition, in Columbus, Ohio, hoped they had in common was the supply chain, which is Ohio’s strength in this sector. And, one thing I learned at the Seminar’s plenary sessions is that there is there is no fuel cell in the world that doesn’t have an Ohio component in it.
Beyond that, these markets have quite different stories to tell on where they are in the technology development timeline and where they are going. But the one theme I heard repeated in Columbus was realism – realism about the need to reduce costs to compete in the commercial market. Two companies, Honda and American Electric Power, stressed that fuel cell technology is ready, but the costs must come down to compete against the many other clean, efficient options available. Honda’s Bill Konstantacos spent much of his talk touting the advantages of its gas and hybrid vehicles, which seemed rather off topic, until the point was made that fuel cells have to compete with these technologies, and will not be adopted just because supporters think fuel cells are the best zero-emissions option. Reducing costs brings us back to the supply chain, since that is where the costs are going to come out at this stage, more so than from any basic research and development.
New Markets for Natural Gas
Other speakers also veered off-topic, promoting their own fuel or technology in addition to fuel cells. Thus, we had Kathryn Clay of the Drive Natural Gas Initiative touting natural gas vehicles – and, in spite of claims that natural gas infrastructure might be a pathway to hydrogen infrastructure, this does not seem likely. That said, I credit H2USA, the group developing a road map for U.S. hydrogen infrastructure rollout, for getting the natural gas industry on board with its efforts. Fuel cell vehicles that use hydrogen from reformed natural gas can offer another domestic market as U.S. gas supplies increase. It will not be until the latter part of this decade at the earliest, but the U.S. natural gas industry has to be making long-term plans on how to utilize the supplies from the U.S. shale gas boom beyond the export option.
I was surprised to see fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) placed in a very prominent role in the seminar’s plenary sessions. FCVs have long played an outsized role in the public face of fuel cells, thanks to the (mostly contrived) battle between FCVs and battery electric vehicles, and because the media finds it more exciting to talk about cars than power boxes. Frankly, this is not helpful to the rest of the fuel cell world because it creates an impression that the technology is not yet ready for prime time when, in fact, more than 28,000 fuel cell systems were shipped in 2012. Still, there was some news on the FCV front – Honda has finally committed to introducing a new FCV in 2015 (its FCX Clarity is from 2008) and Toyota has said it is on track to produce its first production FCV in 2015. Add to that the commitment in California to fund hydrogen fueling during the next 10 years, and there is continued momentum in the FCV arena. It just requires being realistic about the timeline: Navigant Research’s report, Fuel Cell Vehicles, marks 2020 as the tipping point for this market. In the meantime, other fuel cell applications are quietly making inroads into their respective markets.
Tags: Clean Transportation, Conferences & Events, Fuel Cells, Natural Gas, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Program
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