SunLine fuel cell bus. Credit: Ballard and SARTA

Fuel cell technology in Ohio is already moving from research and development into commercialization, according to industry experts at the 2015 Ohio Fuel Cell Symposium. Moreover, that growth is taking place despite recent setbacks in state policy.

Sponsored by the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition (OFCC), the June 15-16 conference at Lorain County Community College in Elyria stressed achievements and highlighted future directions for fuel cells in mobile, portable and fixed distributed generation applications.

Basically, fuel cells use electrons from hydrogen fuel to create an electric current. In the process, hydrogen ions combine with oxygen to produce water as a byproduct. Hydrogen for the process can come from different sources. The most commonly used method involves using natural gas. That process produces some carbon dioxide, but at levels lower than from the direct burning of fossil fuels. Other methods could produce even fewer emissions.

Hydrogen fuel cells are widely considered to be a clean energy option, not only for powering vehicles and machines but also for distributed generation of electricity.

As Kirt Conrad of Ohio’s Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) sees it, hydrogen fuel cell technology “is no longer a science fair project. This is something that’s deployment-ready, that’s ready for prime time.”

Buses and cars

Thanks to an $8.9 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, SARTA will start running fuel-cell buses next year. The first two buses will start running in 2016, with five more slated for delivery in 2017.

While costs to purchase and maintain equipment are still higher than for diesel buses, costs have fallen and will continue to come down, according to Steve Karaffa of Ballard Power Systems, which is supplying the SARTA buses. Equipment going into the SARTA buses will have a lifetime of more than 10,000 hours—a 250 percent increase over the previous generation of equipment. And lifetime costs per kilowatt for the latest version in testing will be half those for that earlier version.

“The technology is here,” Karaffa stressed. “The economics are coming into alignment.”

Fuel and maintenance costs are good too, said Karaffa and Conrad. Maintenance costs are expected to be around $0.39 per mile versus $0.53 per mile for compressed natural gas buses. And SARTA anticipates it will pay $0.68 per mile for the hydrogen fuel versus $0.76 per mile for diesel.

“We can basically go a whole day without refueling a bus if we have to,” Karaffa said, noting that refueling takes just seven minutes. But perhaps the biggest benefits will come from driving and riding on the buses.

“The performance is comparable to diesel technology in terms of the driver’s experience,” Karaffa said. The buses also offer “high passenger comfort. They’re quiet. They’re smooth.”

Fuel cell cars are entering the consumer market too. Hyundai has already begun leasing its Tucson Fuel Cell car, with Toyota set to release its model later this year and Honda to debut its fuel cell car in 2016.

Forklifts, ports and planes

Roads aren’t the only place for fuel cell technology, experts at the symposium said. In December, Cleveland-based Hyster-Yale Materials Handling, Inc. announced its operating company’s acquisition of Nuvera Fuel Cells, Inc.

The company plans to use fuel cell technology first in its own fork lifts and then to offer it for other electric-powered vehicles as well, reported Gus Block of Hyster-Yale Nuvera. Fuel-cell fork lifts can save 15 to 20 minutes of refueling time per shift, have consistent performance throughout the shift, and require less floor space for fuel equipment compared to lead-acid battery equipment, he noted.

Later the company hopes to use fuel cell technology on its bigger trucks, and possibly even its loading equipment for ports. “This is probably coming in the 2017-2018 time frame,” Block said. “California and other states are focused on ports as concentrated emissions generators.”

Meanwhile, Parker Aerospace is working on fuel cell applications for aircraft, said Michel Loignon of that company. With environmental pressures mounting and market studies showing that the world’s fleet of airplanes will double by 2033, the company wants to be in a good position to meet the need for low- or no-emission aircraft.

Industrial plants can also use fuel cell technology for supplemental and standby power. In the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, states such as Connecticut and New York are actively encouraging distributed generation, which can be accomplished with fuel cells, noted Ted Ford of Ohio Advanced Energy Economy.

Connecticut already has the 14.9 MW Dominion Bridgeport Fuel Cell in Bridgeport, which FuelCell Energy Inc. operates for energy giant Dominion. According to materials from FuelCell Energy, the 1.5-acre plant feeds enough electricity to the grid to run up to 15,000 homes.

Companies that already have stationery fuel cells to power their operations at different sites include Google, eBay, Apple, Yahoo, AT&T and Verizon, noted Morry Markowitz of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. The group is encouraging more investment by private companies.

Companies and plants that use distributed generation from fuel cells don’t need to be huge, though. The AnywherEnergy System from Technology Management, Inc. of Cleveland takes up no more space than a two-drawer file cabinet. Moreover, it can use a variety of fuels — including natural gas, propane, diesel or biofuels — to produce the hydrogen needed for the fuel cell reaction.

Developing the supply chain

Ohio already has a growing supply chain for fuel cell energy, thanks to its automotive and aerospace industries, noted OFCC executive director Pat Valente. And last December, the Department of Energy awarded more than $1 million in grants to OFCC and GLWN to develop the supply chain further.

GLWN’s $795,000 grant is for a global competitiveness analysis of hydrogen fuel cell systems. “We’re going to be able to come up with a true generic apples-to-apples comparison system,” said GLWN’s Patrick Fullenkamp. Formerly known as the Great Lakes WIND Network, GLWN is a nonprofit organization that works to connect local manufacturers and suppliers in order to promote business growth in the energy industry.

OFCC’s $450,000 grant will help develop regional technical centers to act as information clearinghouses all along the supply chain. The organization already does something similar for Ohio, noted OFCC Chair Doug Wheeler, who is also president of DJW Technology outside Columbus.

Costs remain an issue. “How do you work on getting this price down?” challenged symposium attendee Mike Horvath of FirstEnergy, which has a 1 MW fuel cell generator at the company’s Eastlake plant. Horvath also wondered whether efforts wouldn’t be better spent working on energy storage solutions. “We need to have power that’s always available.”

The shale gas boom has been of some help to fuel cell development, noted Valente. According to the Department of Energy, natural gas steam reforming is now the main way to produce hydrogen gas in the United States. So cheaper natural gas from shale helps bring down the costs for running hydrogen fuel cells. But other methods may ultimately prove more promising.

“Really, for fuel cells to take over general market demand, we’re going to have to push the price of hydrogen down,” said Karaffa. “I think there are technologies out there that are cheaper than steam reformation.”

Toward that end, Karaffa noted, his company Ballard is working with research groups “to get to renewable hydrogen.” Producing hydrogen from renewable sources could basically eliminate all emissions from fueling and operating fuel cells.

Policy still matters

The market for fuel cell energy is still in its early stages, but it has come a long way, stressed the speakers at the conference.

“What we’re seeing in Ohio and other parts of the country is private investment,” said Valente. “In the past we were really dependent on government money.”

Nonetheless, policy matters, Ford stressed. Ohio’s clean energy standards deem energy from fuel cells to be renewable energy. Although the standards had stimulated growth in that energy sector, there’s been a “tremendous drop-off in investment” since lawmakers began debating and then last year passed Senate Bill 310, Ford noted.

SB 310 froze further requirements under Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for two years. The next and probably last hearing for the Energy Mandates Study Committee set up by that law is set for July 20. As Ford sees it, investors feel uncertain about the future, and some also feel that Ohio has reneged on promises in its 2008 and 2012 energy laws that promoted emerging clean energy technologies.

“You can’t expand or grow an industry sector if you don’t know what the rules are going to be,” Ford said. “It’s important for all of us to communicate with public policy makers about why we should be advancing instead of just staying where we are.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.