5 minute Summary: I just backed a micro fuel cell project on Kickstarter that is on track to raise $1 million! Why? There is a very seductive vision based on a new distribution model for portable fuels and micro power plants. This post highlights a vision for 2030 when any person in the world can buy clean hydrogen-rich molecule fuels and mini power plants (micro fuel cells) on any local retail shelf.
Simple language? Where we buy food, we can buy fuels. Where we buy smart phones, we can buy a solid-state power plant that converts fuel into electricity. (This vision is not perfect. It is filled with trade-offs but I will make the case that this personal power vision is more transformative to the world than trying to transform society with rooftop solar.)
Why molecule fuels? The is no equal to the energy locked up in chemical bonds of hydrogen-rich fuels. Electricity from molecule fuels will likely remain the dominate model for decades to come. Electricity from solar rooftop cells will struggle (because of its physical footprint) to meet growing energy demand. Solar will also fail to compete with business models that deliver dense, portable energy over retail shelves. H2-rich fuels can be produced from regional primary sources of energy including biomass, natgas, solar-to-fuels, et al. More importantly it can be sold at various price points. New customers do not have to worry about accessing a ‘grid’ or being approved for a utility contract. Portable clean fuels become a retail shelf product.
Why fuel cells? The fuel conversion devices are solid state (e.g. no moving parts) and scalable in size to be as small as your phone or large as a shipping container. The central electrochemical reaction provides heat and electricity as long as it has fuel. ?(No searching for a socket to recharge your battery.) The manufacturing and distribution dynamics are similar to products we associate as consumer electronics. No need for governments or large engineering firms to dictate your personal energy investments. By 2030 you can imagine any regional economy in the world having the industrial capacity to manufacturing its own fuel cells if they desire. Units themselves, which we can see as ‘power plants’, are sold at varying price points across a retail shelf. We can imagine a world circa 2030-2040 where we produce billions of micro power plants. Off-grid households in emerging economies can gradually increase the number of micro fuel cell devices to power lighting, phones, appliances (et al). They will not be limited to the fixed power from a solar rooftop system.
Do fuel cells offer a viable leapfrog path for distributed energy? The modern era of electricity has been shaped by ‘centralized’ systems from large power plants that deliver electrons over copper wires. To bring electricity to the world you needed to build a grid. ‘Distributed power’ or distributed generation solutions such as solar rooftops, diesel generators and fuel cells bring electricity generation closer to the point of use. Many people believe distributed power can transform how billions of people access electricity. Just as hundreds of millions of people leapfrogged landlines into the age of cell phones, distributed power offers a compelling alternative vision of the future. Imagine a world where clean fuels and mini-power plants sold at all price points can enter any retail market on Earth.
Portable Power… Personal Power… who knows what this movement will be called. The visible support for this Kraftwerk Kickstarter project is significant and serves as an opportunity to imagine a more transformative future vision: an energy marketplace where any person on the planet can buy clean molecule fuels and mini power plants on a retail shelf.
What can you do to change things? Support the nascent fuel cell industry over the next five years. Buy premium priced products like micro fuel cells and fuel-cell based electric vehicles sold by Toyota and Honda. Rally behind regional efforts in the US (e.g. Ohio), UK, Japan, Germany and Tawain where industry pioneers are moving forward. Learn about the science, technology roadmap and business case for fuel cells and educate the skeptics. Figure out ways to get the media machine focused on what is possible. Maybe push Burning Man 2018 to require micro fuel cell systems for all burners. Support Kraftwerk’s Kickstarter effort!
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The Slightly Longer Version
My Assumptions are based a Marathon, not a Sprint
Four thoughts on assumptions I bring to framing the future of energy…
- Energy investments are all about the long game. Nothing changes quickly in this industry. Fast growth does not always mean significant shifts in total market share. There is no shame in talking about energy strategies designed for 2030 or 2050. You’ll regret limiting your preferred strategies to what is available today in 2015. It is irrelevant that fuel cells are not a viable large scale product today. Debate whether they are a game-changer beyond 2025 when energy demand really starts to accelerate.
- Energy is also an ‘everything grows‘ game. It is counter-productive to speak of ‘all nuclear’, ‘all solar’ or ‘all hydrogen’ visions of the future. For the foreseeable future there will be a role for all primary forms of energy (hydrocarbons; renewables; nuclear) and different forms of energy carriers (electricity; hydrogen). Do not expect any source of energy to fade away by 2050.
- Focus on business models that are geared towards a high energy future (See Breakthrough Institute). We need clean energy solutions that are growth focused. I love social entrepreneurship driven energy projects but we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that a few projects that bring solar cells to rural villages will meet their long term needs. Bring people into a marketplace of energy solutions. Retail-based energy strategies are seductive and completely off the radar of most ‘future of energy’ conversations.
- Climate Change solutions need new levers of change. There is no doubt that policy changes are needed to address climate change and a more coordinated approach to the accelerated decarbonization of our fuel mix. Politics is important but not sufficient. I see two key levers to change to explore. The first is moving from conversion of fuels via combustion to a cleaner electrochemical process. Focus on a shift of oil, natgas and coal towards electrochemical conversion. The second lever of change is how we rethink energy poverty and notions of the ‘energy ladder‘ which 3 billion people will enter over the next few decades. Putting clean molecule fuels at the bottom of the energy ladder would be a radical revision to any forecast about the future of energy.
Beyond these assumptions… back to Kraftwerk and micro fuel cells.
Why back a Micro Fuel Cell Kickstarter Project?!
Today I supported Kraftwerk’s Kickstarter project which has raised more than $830,000 in only a few days. Kickstarter is a wonderful marketing tool and demand testing platform. That more than 6,000 people have supported a product that will not be delivered until Spring 2016 is newsworthy!
Kraftwerk’s parent company eZelleron is a spin-off of the research institute Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Think a very smart, driven group focused on bringing products out of research world into real world applications.
Kraftwerk uses micro tubular fuel cell architecture that is compatible with a few hydrogen rich fuels (e.g. lighter fluid, butane). A full device can recharge a smart phone up to 11 times.
As advertised, it is an interesting effort. Freedom for adventurous people on bikes, while camping, et al. There is no doubt that ‘premium power’ is the market entry path for micro-fuel cell. I would love to see Kraftwerk (the fuel cell) become more popular than Kraftwerk the band. How will we get there? Slowly along a bumpy road.
My support is for the long game of elevating companies who can put clean molecule fuels and power plants into the hands of billions of people by 2030. Kraftwerk, Intelligent (Upp), Bruton, Neah Power… a full list here. Who will be the consumers to get us there? Campers, festival goers, business travelers and early adopters who just want to the cool factor.
Need a media headline? Burning Man 2018 leads breakout sales for micro fuel cells
What would a skeptic say?
Did I just waste my money on a silly Kickstarter project? Are fuel cells a silly bet?
A skeptic of the long-game will repeat the line that the technology is ‘always ten years away from commercialization’. They would remind me that ‘hydrogen is just an energy carrier, not an energy source.’ ‘It takes more energy to produce hydrogen than you get back’. A more sophisticated skeptic might say ‘I’d rather transport electrons than molecules’.
All these points are partially spot-on and entirely short-sighted. They overlook reality that fuel cells are now in their early stage of commercialization in both stationary and vehicle applications. Skeptics will ignore the role functional nano-materials play in driving down fuel cell costs and altering the energy equation of hydrogen production. They overlook the sustainable business model associated with having a universal energy carrier in a world where portable energy is a premium. Skeptics will not see the profit-model of selling portable fuels compared to huge capital costs of maintaining a system of copper wires.
Where does my confidence in micro-fuel cells come from?
I have been following the development fuel cell since the late 1990s when the technology was stuck in peak ‘hype’ (Remember Ballard‘s soaring Dotcom era stock price?!). I was a true believer who watched the industry collapse around unmet expectations through the early 2000s. Even as critics of fuel cells grew more confident, I doubled down. Studied the science, technology and industry. Today I can talk nanostructured catalysts for oxygen reduction reactions, metal organic frameworks for solid state hydrogen storage or discuss NARUC regulations and business model behind utilities using fuel cell power parks to bring power generation closer to urban markets. As a professional Futurist I have worked across the utilities industry and transportation sector. I started as an evangelist fifteen years ago – and am unmoved but more informed.
We should not be fools in love with fuel cells. Nor should we stay stuck in a conversations about first generation micro-fuel cells as only good for powering up our laptops on airplanes or at Burning Man. There is an opportunity to rethink how fuels and electricity are delivered in a world of 9 billion people driving up demand as they move up the energy ladder.
What is the analog? It would have been short-sighted to imagine the future of a clunky 1980s Motorola DynaTAC phone simply as a mobile phone – when it actually evolved into a computer and social disruptor.
Tap your inner futurist. Think of today’s micro fuel cells as the clunky version of Motorolla’s first cell phone. Its future is much more than a recharging platform for business travelers and campers. This energy conversion platform has all the ingrediants to emerge as a transformational energy technology.
The retail-shelf formula of portable fuels and mini power plant is more seductive than solar rooftop.
Now, we need patience for a decades long transition unfold.
We need to cheer on all players but avoid picking winners by brand or platform.
We need to be prepared for many products to fail and some companies to go bankrupt.
We can be confident in a wide range of fuel cell applications (EVs, stationary) without expecting all markets to be disrupted.
The roadmap is bumpy but the Kraftwerk Kickstarter is a newsworthy milestone in the arena of public awareness.
Wait, you didn’t talk about solar?
We love solar. We love seeing images of solar rooftops in small rural villages. On California rooftops.
Isn’t that the best path to distributed power?
What are the limits to solar rooftop?
Everyone is giddy over solar. Prices have dropped. Elon Musk is involved. Walmart is all in. Basic science research continues to push limits of efficiencies.
What’s not to love about solar? I am actually a huge fan. I love the idea of sunlight turned into electricty. I love the idea of sunlight turned into molecule fuels even more (because that is an energy format you can store and sell).
Rooftop solar is ‘a’ path to distributed generation. Not the only path.
There are significant challenges for relying on solar to drive the distributed power vision forward.
At the highest level I think solar rooftop is challenged in a world where urban markets drive demand. One highrise building with x-square feet of rooftop space will never deliver solutions for hundreds of residents by converting photons into electricity.
Solar rooftops will always be limited to available sunlight and the physical footprint of the rooftop. The amount of energy we can grab from photons into electrons on a rooftop is limited compared to the unlimited amount we can buy-sell via molecule fuels.
At the practical level solar is still trying to compete in a world of fuels-based electricity. What I cannot run away from is the role that molecule fuels play in the world. If not gasoline and natural gas it will be methane hydrates in 2040. We have an abundance of molecules and I would rather convert them electrochemically via fuel cells than rely on combustion conversion.
If we are going to use biomass or solar I would rather see the end format as hydrogen or a hydrogen-rich fuel. It is a format that can be stored and sold. There is a business model there!
Batteries are wholly inadequate. This is a subject for another blog post!
Finally, there is simply a realistic growth curve ahead for solar. Barring a Germany-style investment program across the entire world, solar will remain a sliver in the total supply of ‘renewables’ and among all sources of energy through 2050.
So what does this recent rapid growth look like as a total percentage of renewables in 2040?
Even among its renewable friends, solar is not a leader.