Fuel Cell Hype and Hopes

Fuel cells deserved to hit the headlines this week, but not the way that it played out. The big splash came thanks to CBS News' 60 MINUTES and heavy hyping of a stationary fuel cell developer emerging from stealth-mode development. More surprising, and of real significance, was a projection yesterday by Pike Research that fuel cell-equipped vehicles will go commercial in just 4 years.

The problem with Bloom Energy's Bloom Box stationary fuel cell is that, despite 60 MINUTES' assertion that it might be the holy grail to free Americans shackled to a coal-fired grid, the company has yet to deliver a product. Moreover, the technology is hardly new.

The Bloom Box will use stacks of solid oxide fuel cells to electrochemically turn natural gas into power, eliminating the pollution that comes with fuel combustion. Some fuel cell experts have been blistering in their criticism of Bloom and its hypers. "I'm actually pretty pissed off about it, to be quite honest," is how Nigel Sammes, an SOFC expert at the Colorado School of Mines, expressed his emotions on the Bloom Box to National Geographic. "It really is nothing new. Go to any [SOFC] Web site and you'll see the same stuff."

It's also a market that has been tried before. In fact, more than 200 stationary fuel cell generators were already operating a decade ago when United Technologies first raised the technology's profile, installing a pair in NYC's Four Times Square office tower--an early development in what's since become a green building craze (see Energy to Count On from the August 17, 1999 issue of the New York Times). The 200-kW generators, using an older phosphoric acid electroyte design, generate enough power the tower's nighttime electric demand, and turning waste heat into space and water heating.

If stationary fuel cell's haven't taken off it's because they produce power at higher cost than the grid, and there's no evidence that the Bloom Box will fix that. Cost estimates given by Bloom of 8-9 cts/kwh include healthy subsidies that cut the price in half.

Pike's largely overlooked report, in contrast, challenges the tendency of late to write-off the role of fuel cells in vehicles. The idea of hydrogen-power fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) has taken a beating ever since Joseph Romm, now editor of the Climate Progress blog, released his critical and influential 2004 book: The Hype About Hydrogen: fact and fiction in the race to save the climate. The fuel cells, said the critics, were too expensive and froze in cold weather, while hydrogen would be hard to produce and store (and required a wholly new fueling network).

But automakers haven't given up on FCVs. They've been chipping away at the technology, and the lithium battery-powered electric vehicles that are now the rage at auto shows remain an uncertain bet given their limited range and high cost relative to gasoline cars. As Pike notes, eight automakers (Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault/Nissan and Toyota) vowed last fall to bring FCVs to the market by 2015. Their prediction is that automakers will roll out commercial FCVs in small number in 2014, then produce over 100,000 in 2015, with over 2.8 million FCVs on the road by 2020.

The wildcard according to Pike: whether governments and hydrogen producers establish the fueling stations needed to grow FCVs beyond a niche market.

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