Fuel cells are solid-state electrochemical energy conversion devices that convert hydrogen-rich chemical fuels (natural gas; hydrogen; propane; ammonia) into electricity, heat and steam.
Fuel cells use a scalable and modular design architecture to gain tremendous versatility in applications from handheld portable power, to larger units found in transportation and stationary power used in factories, data centers, residential homes and megawatt sized power parks.
In the late 1990s fuel cells were over-sold and hyped alongside Dotcom enthusiasm. In recent years the science, engineering and business models have made tremendous progress. Improved industry learning curves and falling production cost curves, and increased demand for reliable distributed electricity production have set the stage for fuel cell industry growth over the next decade.
Growth will be slow, steady — but unrelenting in challenging current business models and market realities for utilities, automakers, and portable device makers. The next five years will be an exciting phase for fuel cells finally coming to market. Analysts, customers and energy companies will be looking for revenues and respect.
Markets to Watch: 2015-2020
Distributed power (or DG, Distributed Generation, Stationary Power) allows users to convert fuel onsite into electricity and heat without relying on central power plants.
Japan and Germany are using policy levers to encourage early adoption for residential to commercial and factory settings. U.S. utilities are exploring ways to meet demand through larger MW fuel cell ‘parks’. Projects such Dominion’s fuel cell park in Bridgeport, CT is a lead example within the United States.
Around the globe other early adopters of smaller energy appliances also include telecommunication stations, ports, data centers, logistic hubs, medical facilities and factories.
What about fuel cells and renewables?
Fuel cell based distributed power offers a few key benefits over solar based power generation: reliability of fuel-based electricity, smaller footprint, and promise of lower total operating costs. Fuel cells can be integrated into renewable power systems (e.g. storing excessive wind-solar as hydrogen) or fuel cells can be seen as a direct competitor to distributed solar power units.
Electric Vehicles (Fuel-based EVs)
‘Electric’ vehicles refer to electric motors, not the battery. Despite most media attention on plug-in battery electric vehicles, the dominant view within the auto industry is that fuel-based electric vehicles offer more advantages on cost-to-mass and performance.
Automakers from Germany, Japan and Korea have all made clear signals for a near term future of fuel-based electric vehicles (not pure battery plug-in). Toyota and Honda are planning commercial volume production in 2015.
The most exciting market for fuel-cell vehicles is off-road. The materials handling vehicle market that serves warehouses and logistics hubs has shown lower total operational costs of fuel cell vs battery equipment.
Plug-in vehicles will continue to drive the first generation growth of EV sales, but do not expect batteries to dominate the transportation market in the future. Fuel cells may have disappointed us in the late 1990s, but they are on track for their long-game disruption of the combustion engine. This multi-decade long transition in the transportation sector has begun and the next five years could prove to be an exciting early stage of growth for fuel cell EVs.
Fuel Cell Companies
- Clear Edge Power
- Intelligent Energy
- Bloom Energy
- Ballard Power Systems
- Fuel Cell Power
- Plug Power
- Acal Energy
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Videos to Watch
Clear Edge Power Fuel Cells
Ballard Power – Fuel cells Explained