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Fuel Cell Industry Gains Traction

Aug. 7, 2008
Opportunity grows with increased desire for energy efficiency and awareness of climate change.

Any conversation about finding alternatives to fossil fuels, improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases eventually touches on the potential of fuel cells to answer those challenges.

The better conversation may be "how much of a role can they play?" because, indeed, fuel cells already are powering all sorts of products. Recent examples include the New York Power Authority selecting UTC Power to supply 12 fuel cells totaling 4.8 megawatts of power for the Freedom Tower and three other new towers under construction at the World Trade Center site, and the U.S. Post Office testing fuel cell vehicles as it explores options for a "green delivery" fleet. Additionally a wealth of R&D continues in the use of fuel cells for notebook computers, cell phones, portable power generation and more.

As a result of the increased attention, the global fuel cell industry is on an upward trajectory on multiple fronts, as pointed out in several recently released reports. Advisory firm Lux Research forecasts global commercial sales of fuel cells will reach $1.8 billion in 2012, driven primarily by applications in residential combined heat and power systems and distributed generation deployments.

General Motors shows its Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell crossover vehicle at the Philadelphia Auto Show.And according to the 2007 Worldwide Fuel Cell Industry Survey, released in July, global sales grew 10% to $387 million between 2005 and 2006, and research spending was up 4% to $829 million. Jobs in the fuel cell industry grew by 22% between 2005 and 2006.

"These figures confirm fuel cells are increasing their contribution to economic and to energy security," says Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. "The 22% job growth, atop a 12% increase last year, is particularly heartening."

According to the survey, which was sponsored by fuel cell associations in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan, stationary fuel cells represent the main market focus in the United States at 30%, followed by portable at 23% and auxiliary power units for vehicles at 18%. Stationary fuel cells also were the primary market focus on a global scale, followed by vehicle drive, portable, fueling infrastructure and auxiliary power for vehicles.

"These are important times in the development of the industry," says Alastair Nimmons, a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers, which conducted the worldwide survey research. "Some early markets are opening; companies are working hard to meet customer demands for performance and cost."

Fuel cell stacks from Ballard Power SystemsMeanwhile, the National Research Council added a cautionary note on the commercialization of fuel cells in vehicles. In a congressionally mandated report, the council acknowledges the "impressive" technological advances of fuel cell and hydrogen technology over the past few years. That said, the report states that even in the best-case scenario, it will be many years before hydrogen vehicles significantly penetrate the light-duty vehicle market, and even then only with heavy subsidization. "By 2023, the total cost of fuel cell vehicles, including the cost of hydrogen fuel over a vehicle's lifetime, could become competitive with conventional vehicles," according to the National Research Council.

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