One of the irritating cliches of the climate change conversation is that there is no silver bullet that will solve the problem, only silver buckshot. Like most cliches, though, it’s true. Today’s Sustainability column at fortune.com and cnnmoney.com is about one of those buckshot solutions–hydrogen fuel cells, which have been in development for nearly half a century but only lately have become a real business.
There’s been lots of work done for years around fuel cells–for cars, buses and small-scale applications like cell phones–but the fuel cells that are selling, to real customers, in real markets, are those used to generate power for buildings like supermarkets, hospitals and hotels. Sheraton and Hilton, for example, have hotels in New York powered by fuel cells. Some utility-scale fuel cells are also being sold in Korea, which apparently subsidizes them heavily. These distributed fuel cells use their fuel and capture waste heat more efficiently than central power stations on the grid, and they eliminate losses of electricity during transmission, thereby curbing CO2 emissions.
While wind and solar usually dominate the talk about renewable energy, it’s worth remembering the potential of other forms of renewables (or alternatives), including geothermal, small-scale hydro and fuel cells. Who knows? One could turn out to be powerful buckshot.
Here’s how the column begins:
Starwood’s Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Manhattan, Verizon’s call center on Long Island, the Sierra Nevada brewery in northern California and a Whole Foods Market in Connecticut have little in common except this – all are powered by fuel cells that turn hydrogen into electricity, saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Fuel cells, which have been in commercial use since the 1960s, are at last becoming a real business. United Technologies (UTX, Fortune 500) built the fuel cells that powered NASA’s Apollo space capsule; the industrial giant, which had revenues of $54.8 billion last year, has been trying ever since to make them cheaper. Government research grants sustained FuelCell Energy, a small firm begun in 1969, for decades when its products were too costly to compete with electricity from the grid.
Now, both firms – they are, by coincidence, Connecticut neighbors – are driving down costs, ramping up production and getting closer to seeing profits. (United Technologies doesn’t break out financials for its fuel cell division. FuelCell Energy (FCEL) reported revenues of $75 million and an operating loss of $70 million during the first nine months of this fiscal year.) Executives say that economies of scale should drive down their costs and make fuel cells a sensible option for certain businesses and homes. A federal tax credit of 30% for fuel cells, part of the $110 billion in tax breaks patched onto the financial rescue bill enacted earlier this month, will also be a big help.
You can read the rest here. And you can watch Jan Van Dokkum, the ceo of United Technologies Power unit and a fuel cell advocate, on this video. I can be seen, too, doing my best imitation of a TV reporter.