Navigant Research Blog

Beyond the Fuel Cell Bubble

Lisa Jerram — May 17, 2012

Living in the United States, it can be easy to think that there is little happening with fuel cells.  For the transportation sector, all of the momentum in the U.S. is on the battery electric vehicle side – with billions in private and public money being invested in the cars, the batteries, and the charging systems.  Fuel cell cars have to a large degree dropped off the public radar in the States.  And for some reason this sense that fuel cell cars are over has bled over into other fuel cell markets that are unrelated to passenger cars.

There is in fact a lot happening with fuel cells, especially in the European Union, Japan, and South Korea.  So it is useful to get outside the bubble one lives in and find out what else is happening.  That’s one of the benefits of the annual World Hydrogen Energy Conference (WHEC), one of the few annual hydrogen industry events specifically designed to offer a global perspective.

This year’s WHEC is being held in Toronto, Canada from June 3rd through the 7th.  Because the event is in Canada, Canadian firms are naturally being highlighted, with fuel cell companies Ballard and Hydrogenics especially prominent.  But this event is about exploring the range of work on fuel cells and hydrogen around the world.  The speaker line-up includes representatives from well over 30 countries.

There is a particularly strong German presence, reflecting the leadership role that Germany has taken in promoting fuel cell cars, buses, and stationary power.  The German National Organization for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW) has a featured spot and hopefully will give an update on its efforts to support the commercialization of fuel cell technologies.  This program has been allotted $680 million in public funding, matched by a minimum of 50% industry cost share.  The program is explicitly focused on market preparation.  Daimler and Linde are also prominently featured, and will probably talk about their partnership to build 20 public hydrogen filling stations in Germany.

Indeed, the automotive outlook panels overall should prove interesting.  Automakers are about two years out from their target date for commercial vehicles, which means they are focused on bringing down costs for that target.  I am hoping to get some more public signals from them on what to expect.

Another interesting aspect of this show will be the reports from representatives of emerging economies.  South Africa has several speakers on the agenda, which is unsurprising considering that South Africa is the largest producer of platinum.  Nevertheless, fuel cell activity there has been slow to develop.  India and Brazil are also to be highlighted.  The R&D Centre for the Indian Oil Corporation will talk about the potential for fuel cells to provide backup power for the booming telecom market.  Brazil is exploring fuel cell buses, an obvious fit given the size of its bus manufacturing industry. The WHEC agenda highlights the range of activities around the world on fuel cells and hydrogen – providing a useful corrective to our sometimes insular view from the U.S.

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