Fuel cells of all types could help fuel an impressive growth curve for renewables in the Asia-Pacific region over the next 10 to 15 years.
Many countries there say renewables will comprise 8 percent to 20 percent of their energy portfolio by 2020 to 2025, according to a recent report out of Singapore from the research firm Frost & Sullivan.
“These ambitious renewable energy targets, along with government’s support and favorable topography, have made the region an attractive option for the implementation of renewable power generation sources and thereby, the development of fuel cells,” Frost says.
The report, Asia Pacific Fuel Cells Markets, says the stationary fuel cells segment earned revenues of $142 million in 2008 but estimates this will explode to about $1.9 billion in 2015. At the same time, the portable fuel cells segment earned revenues of only $1 million in 2008 and is projected to reach $12 million in 2015.
“As with any other new product, the initial costs of technology, low end-user awareness, and the lack of a proven track record of continuous and reliable operations restrict the degree of adoption of fuel cells,” says Frost & Sullivan Program Manager Irina Sidneva. “However, given the technical qualities of the product, the application potential for fuel cells is enormous.”
The fuel cells market is currently holding on to its market position mainly on the strength of government subsidies, incentives, and favorable policies. The eventual adoption of fuel cells as the power source of choice will depend on how aggressively and effectively local governments market it, the report contends.
In Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) is running a millennium project on automotive and residential fuel cell markets. In 2009, the emphasis of the third phase of the project is on the commercialization of fuel cells – on creating positive market conditions to motivate mass adoption.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy (MKE) is supporting extended trials and diffusion of the product to stimulate wider use and acceptance. While Australia and several Southeast Asia countries are still in the planning phase of fuel cell technology rollouts, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand are actively developing fuel cell R&D capabilities.
Demand remains limited in most other countries due to inadequate assistance from the regional governments, Frost continues, and the high initial costs of the technology.
Moreover, fuel cells have an added disadvantage of competing with mature products such as diesel and gas engines, generator sets, and batteries. Therefore, along with technological advancements, “fuel cell companies also have to aggressively educate customers about the benefits of fuel cell technology,” Frost says.
Here’s the technical part of the story, from Fuel Cells 2000: A fuel cell operates like a battery, but unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging. It will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel (oxygen and hydrogen in this case) is supplied. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.
“At the moment, other renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbines are seen to have higher potential in the immediate future, while fuel cell technology has to be monitored until it is ready to be introduced to the mass market,” says Sidneva.
“Fuel cells’ costs need to come down tenfold and the number of years of operation needs to double to be competitive in the mass market.”
Given the recent trends in fuel cells technology development, mass-market adoption in the Asia Pacific is forecast to take off by 2015 for stationary fuel cells, and by 2020 for portable fuel cells.
Fuel cells have long been a distant and often dismissed option in the renewables world because of the complicated technology and expense, but if Asia finds a way to prove their viability for the masses fuel cells might turn into one of the best and most dependable of options.