Fuel cells: getting out of the pre-commercial trap

Original article for The Ends Report by Kevin Fothergill, Chair of Hydrogen Hub

The UK’s fifth carbon budget is a broad and ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 57% of 1990 levels by 2032. The technologies that will contribute most to this will be beyond basic research and development and will be either widely deployed already, or in the phase that the Committee on Climate Change describes as “large-scale pre-commercial demonstration, designed to test and improve reliability, improve designs and reduce operating costs”.

Products in this category could play an important part in the UK’s emission reduction plans but their commercial viability and technology readiness are often not well understood and they tend to be undervalued within the carbon budget’s timescale.

Hydrogen and fuel cells are examples of technologies caught in the pre-commercial trap. Their costs are high and first-hand experience of their deployment is limited, particularly in the UK. Yet in Japan and Korea, hydrogen is seen as a key energy carrier and there is growing investment in fuel-cell combined heat and power units and fuel-cell cars. This is proactively supported by government and industry working towards a common goal.

In the US, government support is less of an incentive but nonetheless more than 10,000 fuel-cell forklift trucks have been placed in service, based on their improved operability and operating costs compared with conventional lead-acid battery trucks. In many cases, the reliability of hydrogen technologies has been shown to be at least equal to conventional energy generation and storage methods and costs are falling as the scale of manufacture increases.

In theory, it is a significant step forward when a new product achieves industry standard reliability. In practice, however, perceptions are slow to change. A lack of knowledge about the new technology and a natural aversion to risk often mean adoption is far slower than expected.

This is the situation for hydrogen and fuel cells in the UK, where physical demonstrations have been few and far between and many in industry believe the technology to be still in the R&D phase. Activities in other countries clearly show this is not the case and we should question how we can overcome the perception and cost issues that reduce us to being followers rather than leaders in hydrogen and fuel cells.

Successful and increasing deployments will help to correct perceptions but the cost issue still needs to be addressed. Government incentives are helpful but we should also look for opportunities to share costs across more than one application. For example, the cost of hydrogen fuelling infrastructure is a clear barrier to the introduction of fuel-cell vehicles across the UK. Without large numbers of such vehicles, there is no case for investment in filling stations and with no filling stations, there can be no vehicles.

Yet large goods distribution centres are conveniently located near road networks and – building on the success in the US – they could be encouraged to operate fuel-cell forklift trucks. This could provide the basis for a cost-effective, UK-wide hydrogen fuelling infrastructure convenient to all types of freight and passenger vehicles.

In an ideal world, the hydrogen produced in this scenario should be zero carbon, produced directly by using electricity that is generated renewably, on-site. In the near-term, however, it would still be beneficial to produce the hydrogen from grid electricity or even from natural gas to take advantage of the high efficiency of the fuel-cell system and the very low level of NOx and particulates produced.

To meet the UK’s CO2 reduction targets, we need to spring some of the newer and most promising technologies from the pre-commercial trap. Costs can be reduced by clustering end users around a single investment and in this way more systems can be deployed sooner to demonstrate the viability of a particular technology and accelerate the UK’s transformation to a low-carbon economy.

For more information please contact the author:

Kevin Fothergill

Hydrogen Hub Chair

E: kevin.fothergill@hydrogenhub.org

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