Cleantech Market Intelligence
In Fuel Cells, the U.S. Plays Catch-Up
The fuel cell industry is developing along two tracks: one in the United States and the other in the rest of the world.
Starting with the rest of the world, a growing number of coalitions in the automotive sector are developing and implementing rollout plans for hydrogen refueling stations, alongside car companies gearing up for the 2015 launch of fuel cell vehicles. Interest and development activity in polymer electrolyte membrane electrolyzers has risen, complementing and working alongside their alkaline cousins. These systems have the potential to produce very high-purity hydrogen on demand, at small to very large volumes, and to help in integrating renewable generation sources. In the stationary segment, several countries are implementing policies that either directly or indirectly support the fuel cell industry ‑ from removing trade barriers to bringing together coalitions to drive down manufacturing costs to stipulating renewable portfolio standards.
To put this in context, in Pike Research’s 2012 Stationary Fuel Cells report we identified 50 GW of market potential by 2020 driven by government action for the stationary fuel cell sector. Of this 50 GW, over 98% is outside the United States.
A Couple of Trumps
If the United States wants to be a leading player, it has a long way to go. It has, though, two potential trump cards. The first is that, at present at least, the majority of commercial stationary fuel cell companies are based in America. As my colleague Lisa Jerram pointed out in a recent blog, “Fuel Cell Providers Act Locally,” fuel cell companies are setting up manufacturing where their markets are. So in order to encourage manufacturing and job creation, a local market for fuel cell adoption must be created. Unless a homegrown market for stationary fuel cells develops in the United States, the companies are likely to be headquartered there, but the manufacturing will occur overseas. With an 18-month to 2-year lead time to open up a new overseas market, U.S. federal and state governments still have time to develop the local market and make it increasingly attractive to the local companies.
The second potential ace that the United States could play is its ample supplies of natural gas. With key questions arising from the natural gas boom, particularly its impacts on renewable energy, the opportunity is now for the fuel cell industry, the battery industry, the hydrogen industry, and the renewable industry to work together and start providing overall integrated solutions, rather than disaggregated pieces of a complex puzzle. A perfect example of this could be the development of hydrogen refueling stations, with hydrogen produced onsite from excess renewables, electricity when it is needed, and even some useful heat if the system is constructed with that in mind. This turnkey solution could go some way to ensuring continued demand for renewables, alongside advanced batteries and fuel cells, as well as encouraging the deployment of fuel cell vehicles in the United States.