Cleantech Market Intelligence
GE Demos Lower-Cost Fuel Cell Bus
GE Global Research recently demonstrated its new battery dominant fuel cell bus, which attempts to address a sticky problem for fuel cell buses: cost. Fuel cell bus system costs have dropped, but the buses are still expensive (the costs aren’t just in the fuel cell system, but also the hydrogen storage tanks, the hybrid battery and the system controls). The U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation jointly set a target bus price of $1 million by 2016, which is still pretty steep. The long term goal is $600,000, which would put the fuel cell bus in the range of today’s hybrid buses, which have captured significant market share in the United States and are making inroads in Europe.
In my report this year on the global electrified bus market, I forecast that sales of fuel cells buses will experience good growth, with a 55% CAGR from 2012 through 2018. Nevertheless, they will remain a niche technology, accounting for well under 5 % of global transit bus sales. Pure battery buses and plug-in hybrids will see higher sales rates, but this is driven almost entirely by the muscle China is putting into battery bus development and deployment. Indeed, it should be noted that the costs of both batteries and fuel cells must come down to move these technologies beyond niche status in the bus market. As I have discussed earlier, transit agencies in North America and Europe are already struggling to make do with less, with tax revenues down or austerity measures kicking in.
Which brings us back to GE’s fuel cell bus. Its development was supported by the U.S. Federal Transit Administration’s fuel cell bus program, which has funded a range of development and demonstration projects to help this technology meet the cost target noted above as well as key performance targets. GE has integrated the fuel cell with not one battery (as other fuel cell buses do) but two: a lithium ion battery for acceleration and launch assist and GE’s own Durathon battery for load leveling of the fuel cell. Putting together three different power and energy storage devices seems complicated, but each can then be downsized, reducing its cost, and operated in its preferred mode – steady state in the case of the fuel cell and power in the case of the lithium battery. GE is gung ho about its Durathon battery for a variety of energy storage applications. What is less clear is how gung ho the company is to move this bus concept beyond a demonstration. Their FTA funded project has been underway for 4 years, suggesting that there is no great urgency. So, though we’re still a long way from commercial viability, the GE program provides an interesting approach to addressing the cost conundrum for both battery and fuel cell buses.