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My Search for the Incredible Disappearing Fuel Cell

3 min. read

By Brian Mahar, Senior Vice President

Turn back the clock to 2001. On a hot summer day, I was the staff photographer as my boss, Congressman John Larson, hosted a test drive for members of Congress of a fuel cell-powered SUV on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. To a person, the members were impressed. It was quiet. It had no harmful emissions. It looked normal. And, it didn’t stall on Independence Avenue.

At the time, fuel cells had plenty of hype. In 2002, then-House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt told “Meet the Press” that we needed a “Manhattan Project on fuel cells.” President Bush affirmed his commitment to fuel cells in his 2003 State of the Union address. And, Congressman Larson co-founded the Congressional Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Caucus in 2004. The future looked bright.

Fast forward to the present. As someone who closely follows clean energy, it dawned on me that I stopped hearing about fuel cells the moment I left Congressman Larson’s office. Outside of a splashy Fuel Cell Seminar & Expo, hosted at the Mohegan Sun back in November. While I was there, I spoke with a number of industry leaders about the media landscape, as well as the industry’s challenges and opportunities.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Too much hype early on: Like so many promising technologies, its promise was, well, overpromised. In the early stages of the industry, early versions didn’t perform as expected. It’s a lesson any communications professional should understand: don’t let your news releases get ahead of your engineering. Early stage technology companies should maintain an open flow of communications between the R&D, product and marketing/communications teams. That’s why we, at UTC Power (which has since been acquired by road map for buses.And reliability is certainly not a problem, as evidenced by performance during Hurricane Sandy. For example, Guy McAree of Ballard Power Systems noted that 17 of the company’s ElectraGen™-ME methanol fuel cell systems performed flawlessly in the Bahamas during the storm, helping to keep the nation’s communications infrastructure up and running.
  • The flexibility of fuel cells provides sizable market opportunities: One of the prime markets for fuel cells is in backup power, especially for telecommunications and especially in areas with unreliable transmission infrastructure.Materials handling provides another important market opportunity, such as forklifts. Fuel cells can also be used for automotive purposes, especially with light duty vehicles or fleets that have predictable usage, such as buses.Fuel cells are also a good power source for buildings with baseload needs over 400 kW, such as hospitals, colleges and supermarkets. UTC Power’s Sanger reported that a local grocery store was able to keep its refrigeration units operating throughout Hurricane Sandy, thus avoiding a huge loss of perishable goods.

    Ross Bailey, President and CEO of Greenlight Innovation, noted that more near-term opportunities are located internationally. In his view, Asia and Europe better understand how to address the energy challenge ahead. This underscores why he thinks increasing awareness in North America is important.

  • Fuel cells play well with others: The electric grid likes consistent power delivery. With cost-effective energy storage still in development, forward-thinking companies are looking at creative ways to deliver cleaner energy. AREVA Solar is tying their concentrating solar power to coal or natural gas-fired power plants to provide firm capacity. And OWN Energy is teaming with New Jersey Resources to team wind with natural gas.Fuel cells have the potential to partner with other renewable sources to provide firm capacity with an even lower emissions profile.
  • Good vibes: When I asked my panel of industry experts to describe the industry in three words, I heard things like “commercial,” “turned a corner,” “maturing,” “on the rise.” The atmosphere at the conference was overwhelmingly positive on the heels of proven performance during a weather catastrophe and market opportunities, especially overseas.

Although the industry is clearly on an upward trajectory, it faces challenges. In my second post, I’ll spell out those challenges and provide some thoughts on opportunities for the fuel cell industry to move forward through marketing communications.

Note: Since the Fuel Cell Seminar & Expo, UTC Power was acquired by ClearEdge Power as part of UTC’s restructuring efforts to focus on its core aerospace and building businesses.