Many fuel cell manufacturers are stealthy about their costs and prices, protecting the data like it is intellectual property. But new data from Japan’s ENE-FARM program confirms what other analyses have shown: fuel cells are showing consistently steep cost declines as production increases.
Most technologies exhibit a similar cost decline pattern. For every doubling of cumulative installed capacity, a commensurate decline in cost is realized due to improvements in manufacturing, supply chain efficiencies, and economies of scale. Plotted on a log-log chart, this curve forms a straight line called the learning or experience curve, and the slope is correlated with the rate of cost decline. For these 0.7 kW proton exchange membrane (PEM) micro-combined heat and power fuel cells, the learning rate is 17.2%, a number in agreement with the 20% found for larger-scale fuel cells. These rates beat the 12% of wind power and approach the 23% of PV (based on global values from this meta-study). Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry also released price goals for ENE-FARM in 2019. If met, these goals will continue the trend and bring the unsubsidized payback period down to around 7 years, which could mean broad adoption in the target residential market. Europe has its own similar program ramping up as well, while the United States and South Korea are more focused on larger-scale fuel cells.
Unsubsidized Price and Capacity of ENE FARM PEM Fuel Cells, Japan: 2006-2019
(Sources: Navigant Research; Imperial College London; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)
Note that the ENE-FARM data is based on prices, not costs, and that the underlying marginal profitability of these units (produced mainly by Panasonic and Toshiba) is unknown. In addition, fuel cell systems have some components that are already mature and which may limit opportunities to squeeze out costs. Regardless, relative to PV and wind, fuel cells are far less commercially mature and are likely to fall faster in the near term. Each doubling in capacity becomes increasingly difficult for mature technologies. For example, at the end of 2015, wind had an installed base of 434 GW and solar PV had an installed base of 230 GW. This accounts for around 12% of global generating capacity, and even with the current fast growth rates, it is clear that future doublings will take even longer. Meanwhile, fuel cells (which have around 1 GW installed capacity) have the potential for greater price declines as adoption grows. As prices fall, these continuous output sources will become more attractive to a growing host of markets in the coming years.