Energy Secretary Chu Revises View of Fuel Cell Future

Abundant supplies of shale methane (natural gas) now viewed as making fuel cell vehicles more viable with the possibility of relatively low cost hydrogen to power them.

Published: 15-Aug-2012

In 2009 the new U.S. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, gave an interview stating that fuel cell powered light-duty vehicles were in need of a few miracles to make them viable in the market place. Earlier this year, Chu did a 180-degree spin, saying that, thanks to newly abundant natural gas supplies in the United States, fuel cell vehicles now – officially – have potential.

In the intervening three years Germany, the United Kingdom, and more recently France have all launched their own versions of H2Mobility to coordinate and promote the adoption of fuel cell vehicles in 2015. At the start of 2012, Japan detailed a map of future hydrogen refueling stations that will serve the majority of the Japanese population, and China laid out targets for local production and adoption of fuel cell vehicles. In other words, the United States was pretty much out of step with the rest of the world.

But now the American government is back on board in supporting the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) option. Is this really a good thing? Probably. But…

The fuel cell industry is still plagued with large, government-backed R&D projects that tend to shield companies from market realities. The most successful companies to date, such as Bloom Energy, FuelCell Energy, Altergy, and SFC Energy, have focused on commercialization and not feeding on government handouts. The government focus on targeted R&D in the early days was vital, and the U.S. Department of Energy, along with Japan, led the world. But now an increasing number of countries are being weaned off of R&D subsidies as the technology becomes increasingly commercial.

My worry is that the shift in U.S. policy will re-open the door again to large-scale, long timeline R&D projects. July 25th, 2012 saw the announcement by the U.S. DOE of a 2-year program to monitor and evaluate hydrogen infrastructure performance data. Assuming the fastest possible kickoff, the program will launch in 2013, with a 2-year program out to 2015, say 6 months to write up the first draft report, and the wrap-up likely coming in 2016. Four years from now. By that time all the car companies should have fleets of fuel cell vehicles on the road, probably in Europe and Asia Pacific.

So unless this about-face includes a realistic roadmap to commercialization that focuses on the market and not R&D, the Energy Secretary’s support could actually delay the roll-out of FCVs in the U.S.

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