On several occasions I’ve been hired to attend and write about trade show gatherings. In this example, I was hired by the annual Fuel Cell Seminar & Exposition, which met at Disney World near Orlando, Fla. in 2011. In this case, the group was looking for someone to do interviews and attend sessions, and then turn out stories for an industry newsletter. These assignments can be fun, and sometimes they are good revenue generators. This example is one of the newsletter stories.
Industry leaders optimistic about fuel cell industry’s future
In spite of the sluggish economy and reductions in financial support by the federal government, a number of fuel cell industry leaders we spoke to were surprisingly upbeat about the future.
During the 2011 Fuel Cell Seminar & Exposition at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., we asked a number of attendees one simple question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the industry? Here is what they had to say:
MORRY MARKOWITZ, Executive Director, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association: “I am very optimistic about the future. My background, both in the electric utility industry and the automotive industry, has given me the foundation to understand the past, present and future of this industry, and I think the future is very bright.
“On the mobile side, the fuel cell vehicle is the only zero-emission vehicle that is on the horizon that will be able to exactly replicate the current driver’s needs in driving an automobile by having the range that it needs of 300-400 miles per tankful, being able to refuel in two-to-five minutes, and to be able to do that hopefully in multiple places.
“On the stationary side, the simplicity and reliability of fuel cell technology will provide a bridge for our current system of centralized generation of transmission lines having to go through vast areas and distribution lines that are increasingly vulnerable to weather and even some future activities, both by nature and manmade.
“The idea of the simplicity and availability of fuel cells is an appropriate bridge for those technologies.”
SAM LOGAN, chief executive officer, LOGAN Energy Corp., Roswell, Ga.: “In the shorter term, the industry is going to be bucking the headwinds of the really difficult economy. And coupled with that is the diminished ability of the government to provide the kinds of appropriated funds for product improvements, manufacturing improvement and deployments.
“However, and in spite of that, there are a number of important advances taking place. Some of them are taking place overseas, but they are having a positive impact on companies here.
“For example, fuel cell energy has recognized the largest sale ever for the industry through its association with POSCO in Korea, and they are probably going to achieve this year a break-even on some accounting methodology.
“The other real success story is Plug Power, and the way Plug over the last decade or more has moved and tested and moved around product testing from stationary CHP to stationary backup.
BOB ROSE, Executive Director, Breakthrough Technologies Institute and Executive Director, Fuel Cells 2000: “Fuel cells are no longer a backwater; it is a billion-dollar industry that employs about 25,000 people worldwide. I think there is ample evidence that the industry is getting traction in some markets.
“In the power generation side of things, they tend to be heavily subsidized. Costs are still a challenge, but in some markets, like goods movement or fork lifts, support from government or other entities is in some cases not even applied for.
“There is a federal investment tax credit that people get other than that. For certain applications, those fork lifts are selling on their own merits, so that is an excellent sign that the industry is finding markets that take advantage of the combination of benefits that fuel cells offer.”
Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, executive director, South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance: “If we didn’t have fuel cell fork lifts right now in the hundreds and thousands, hundreds in South Carolina and thousands nationwide, I really think I would be hard pressed to find the success story I need to keep selling the story to the general public and to the decision makers that this is a viable pathway.
“But I’m not pessimistic — I am optimistic that we are going to find new business-oriented ways to promote the industry, and to further the industry.”
Optimism aside, these same people had insights and suggestions about what needs to happen to encourage success in the industry.
Logan said the industry’s success will depend in large part on the federal government, but not in the form of stimulus grants.
“What the industry really needs is a source of very, very large orders,” Logan said, “The most mature fuel cell marketplace, the vertical marketplace which truly has the ability to absorb every stripe and kind of application, is the federal government. So the industry is working very diligently with the federal government to create what I would describe as procurement mechanisms for industry to sell directly to government, with an over-arching contracting mechanism that will allow local procurement officials to purchase services.
“So the message to the government is, don’t send the industry any more of your rationed stimulus money. The purest form of stimulus for industry is orders,” he said. “If (the federal government) will work with the fuel cell industry and send us those orders, we will light up this industry and we will produce tens of thousands of new jobs along the entire value chain which will stimulate economic growth, job security, and really push the U.S. back into the forefront of the fuel cell world.”
Markowitz believes future success for the industry may come from a number of different fronts.
“There is no silver bullet, but there is silver buckshot,” he said. “You need multiple approaches to address the many challenges facing our country, whether it is energy independence which leads to energy security, or greater reduction in greenhouse gases, or improving sustainability.
“There is not going to be a simple answer; there will be many answers, and I think we are going to play an important role with that answer.”
Baxter said future success in the industry will depend in large part on the amount that customers will have to pay for hydrogen.
“I think that the cost of hydrogen is really the lynchpin in all this,” she said.
For Rose, future success in at least some segments of the industry may come from its ability to find good partners. Those partnerships, he said, are likely to come from the various states.
“I think in the short term on the power generation side, the industry is going to have to find partners, most likely the states, that continue to support deployment of power generation systems and power systems,” he said. “The systems work great, but they are still a premium product, and they struggle to find markets unless there is a significant level of support.
“Given the way things are in Washington, that support is probably going to come from the states,” he said. “Certainly it is now in states like New Jersey, New York and California where the vast majority of fuel cell power generation systems are being installed.”
The industry’s biggest upcoming news? Rose said it will be the deployment of commercial fuel cell vehicles, something that is just a few years away.
“The cars are coming,” he said. “Five automakers have said 2015 is the commercialization date, or in some cases 2014. There is a real scramble right now to find innovative financing strategies to get hydrogen fueling stations deployed in time to meet that demand, and that is the big issue right now.”