Year-End Reflections on the Fuel Cell Industry in 2010: GreenTechMedia’s never-changing ‘short’ list of profitable fuel cell firms….
First, here’s an updated list of the top three profitable publicly-held fuel cell firms:
The not-profitable list is a bit longer and includes:
FuelCell Energy (Nasdaq:FCEL) reported revenue of $69.8 million in 2010 compared to $88.0 million for the comparable prior year. Net loss for the year was $58.9 million. FuelCell Energy builds molten carbonate stationary fuel cell power plants located at wastewater treatment facilities, universities, pump stations and other sites that need low-emission baseload distributed generation.
Australian firm, Ceramic Fuel Cells builds SOFC-based small-scale on-site micro combined heat and power (CHP) and distributed generation units. The AIM and ASX-listed firm lost about $19 million in the year ending June 2010 on sales of $2 million. The company has some sales activity in Europe.
Canadian-based Ballard Power Systems produced its one-millionth membrane-electrode assembly (MEA) this year, certainly a milestone in the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell technology. The MEA is the core component of its proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell and Ballard has seen a 30 percent annual reduction in the cost of its fuel cell products over the past two years.
Ballard lost $3.3 million on 2009 sales of $46.7 million at a 5.9 percent gross margin. Ballard has a range of fuel cell products including systems and components for residential cogen, distributed generation and backup power. The pioneering firm has been developing proton exchange membrane-based fuel cells and losing money since 1983.
Plug Power (NASDAQ:PLUG), facing a Nasdaq delisting, lost $19.5 million in the second quarter of this year and $9.3 million on revenue of $5.8 million in the third quarter. The company is now focusing its PEM fuel cells on the materials handling market (in other words: forklifts). Oorja Protonics is also targeting this market.
Every fuel cell startup from MTI (recently de-listed from Nasdaq) to Protonex (recently delisted from the AIM) all the way to multi-nationals like Toshiba have promised commercial fuel cell product for decades, but few have managed to reach commercialization, let alone profitability.
Fuel cells were first demonstrated in the 1830s though it took another 50 years until the physics of the flow of electrical current in the fuel cell was understood. It might take another hundred years or so until the art of making them a volume-scale and profitable commercial business can be fully understood.
But VCs and entrepreneurs, God bless ‘em, are not going to let a century of business failure halt their ambition. Nor is Uncle Sam or other governments, which continue to pour millions into fuel cell technology development. Major firms such as GM, Hyundai, Honda, Johnson Matthey, Panasonic, Siemens, Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, Toyota, and UTC also invest in the fuel cell industry directly or as limited partners in venture capital firms.
Deepwater Wind, a company based in Providence, Rhode Island, has drawn up plans for what could be the largest wind farm in U.S. waters, the company announced last week. The proposed farm would generate a huge 1,000 megawatts of power and would be located 18 to 27 miles off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts at a depth of 52 meters””considerably deeper than any other large scale wind project to date. By moving into deeper waters, turbines can harness stronger, more sustained winds. And the massive turbines the company plans to use””each capable of generating more than 5 megawatts of power, with blades rising 150 meters above the water’s surface””will be nearly invisible from shore, thereby avoiding potential legal battles with coastal communities that perceive the turbines as eyesores.
Four-legged steel platforms rising from the seafloor will allow Deepwater Wind to operate in depths more than twice those of conventional steel “monopole” wind turbine platforms. As water depth increases, the diameter of monopoles must increase exponentially, making them uneconomical in water deeper than about 20 meters. By using a four-legged design, company officials say they will be able to work in depths that were previously prohibitively expensive.
The four-legged platform design is already commonly used for offshore oil and gas rigs. It was first adapted for offshore wind turbines in a pilot project in the North Sea, known as the Beatrice Wind Farm Demonstrator Project, in 2007. Two 5-megawatt turbines were each mounted on a four-legged tower in 45 meters of water. Although the towers were never connected to the electricity grid, they remain the world’s deepest offshore wind platforms.
Paul Sclavounos, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says four- or even three-legged towers offer a ready way for offshore wind to expand into deeper waters. However, truly deepwater deployments””platforms in hundreds of meters of water””will require floating platforms unattached to the seafloor.
“For depths much larger than [45 meters], the only solution is floaters, but we still have to do more development on these designs,” Sclavounos says. Only two small pilot floating turbines have so far been deployed anywhere in the world.
Roughly 44 percent of Californians smoked tobacco in 1965. By 2010, 9.3 percent did””a shift that might have seemed impossible before it happened. Understanding exactly how such a social transformation occurred in the past may prove key to understanding how individuals might alter their behavior to help combat climate change in the future.
By studying past instances of social transformation, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) hope to predict future change in response to global warming as part of California’s Carbon Challenge””a study commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels. LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and his colleagues are analyzing technology options as well as data records from 10 historical behavior changes””smoking cessation, seat belt use, vegetarianism, drunk driving, recycling and yoga, among others.
For starters, Greenblatt is examining the full mix of technical advances in both the supply and demand of energy that could possibly help meet the target, including more efficient electric motors, better insulation, intelligent controls for energy, as well as fluorescent and LED lighting. But even all of these technological advances may not get California to its mid-century mandate alone.
Individual choices could close the gap, according to historical data. Because smoking cessation data and seat belt””use statistics have around for decades, scientists have a good grasp on so-called adoption rates, or how much behavior change is ultimately possible. Historical data also explains how long it takes for change to stick. For example, tobacco smoking has been in a steady decline since the 1960s with all sorts of factors driving this trend””improved science and epidemiology, education through labeling and advertising campaigns, and greater public awareness of risks””all of which could be applied to behaviors that contribute to climate change. “Watershed events and labeling can play important roles in transforming change. The 1964 Surgeon General report is an example [of a watershed event] and subsequent labeling for cigarettes was a big factor,” says energy researcher Max Wei of LBNL, adding that he imagines far more carbon or environmental labeling to inform the public.
By identifying the hurdles, policies and incentives used to, say, dissuade smokers from lighting up, the LBNL team says they can better pinpoint corresponding elements related to persuading individuals to alter their energy use. “We’re eliminating the squish from what has often been known as the squishy science,” Greenblatt says. In total, the team is looking at 23 different energy behavior areas””from telecommuting and public transit to wasting less food””and projecting these well into the future.