In the United States, the topic of fuel cells is very often greeted with skepticism. One prominent fuel cell skeptic, Tesla founder Elon Musk, recently called fuel cell cars a silly idea.
So it’s interesting to compare that to the respect still given to fuel cell technology in Japan, where the 2015 FC Expo recently took place. The FC Expo is one of the largest fuel cell conferences in the world and attracts attendees from around the world. But the audience is predominantly from the Asia Pacific region, and the level of interest in the potential of fuel cells is dramatically different than in the United States. Japan and South Korea, in particular, are two of the biggest markets for fuel cell deployments to date.
Japan’s ENE FARM program has supported the deployment of 100,000 fuel cell combined heat and power systems in Japanese homes. At the Expo, companies like Toshiba, Panasonic, and Aisin Seiki spoke about their commitment to the Japanese residential fuel cell program, which aims to sell over 1 million fuel cell CHP units in Japan by 2020. South Korea’s POSCO Energy has developed the 59 MW Gyeonggi Green Energy fuel cell park and built a 200 MW capacity manufacturing plant for the molten carbonate fuel cell that utilizes FuelCell Energy’s technology.
What’s most interesting is that these Japanese and South Korean companies are focused on expanding to new markets—in particular to the United States. Ironically, though skepticism toward fuel cells persists in the United States, the American market remains one of the most attractive in the world. That’s why South Korean companies have been buying up North American fuel cell companies, and their technology, over the past few years.
LG became a majority investor in Rolls Royce’s fuel cell business in 2012. In 2014, Doosan bought ClearEdge’s assets, and POSCO has continued to strengthen its relationship with FuelCell Energy. These companies bring significant resources and a long term outlook to the fuel cell sector, using their U.S.-based fuel cell businesses as a beachhead into the U.S. market.
Got a Match?
The U.S. market has many characteristics that make it a good market for fuel cells. The shale gas boom is driving interest in electricity generation that can take advantage of plentiful supplies of natural gas. High value markets, such as data centers, are growing in number and in energy demand, and companies like Apple and Microsoft are exploring using fuel cells to bring down those costs. Energy services companies are exploring ways to meet the growing demand for distributed energy resources (DER) , and are using new financing instruments to support deployment of DER. Incentives and programs to promote fuel cells in states like California and New York are helping to bring down the costs of today’s fuel cells to where the cost of the power approaches grid parity.
It’s not certain, though, that the fuel cell market in the United States will grow beyond early niche markets. Fuel cell companies need to drive down costs and utilize financing schemes like power purchase agreements to reduce the risk to end users. What the fuel cell industry needs is a matchmaker who can bring together the companies working to develop a successful fuel cell market with the right energy company or financing partners in the United States so they can work together to expand the market for fuel cells in this country.