So, here’s one for hydrogen fuel cell skeptics to puzzle over. If the future looks so dismal for fuel cell vehicles, why are General Motors and Honda planning a giant fuel cell manufacturing plant in Michigan to the tune of $85 million? Adding insult to injury for the skeptical set, the new fuel cell factory will piggyback on an existing GM plant that makes battery packs for electric vehicles.
Monday’s announcement set the Internet humming, because fuel cell electric vehicles have been slow to catch on. The new venture represents the first mass production of fuel cells in the U.S. by auto manufacturers, and it could be just the thing to propel the technology into the mainstream automotive market.
The sparkling green hydrogen future
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen has been a fuel of mystery and allure in the energy field, ever since NASA began using it to power space travel in 1958. It is an abundant domestic source of fuel. When used to produce electricity in a fuel cell, the only emission is water.
Hydrogen fuel has been slow to trickle down to the automotive industry, though, partly because fuel cell technology is expensive. So far in the electric vehicle field, battery-powered cars are beating fuel cells by a wide margin.
Another challenge is sourcing: Today the primary source of hydrogen is fossil natural gas. That opens a whole new can of worms involving the gas supply chain including air pollution, water resource issues, greenhouse gas emissions and even earthquakes.
However, fuel cell costs are beginning to come down. And the advent of renewable energy makes it possible to turn to water-splitting and other renewable sources for hydrogen.
The Honda-GM fuel cell mashup
Honda and GM are calling their new partnership the Fuel Cell System Manufacturing joint venture. Here’s a rundown of the technology firepower involved:
“GM and Honda are acknowledged leaders in fuel cell technology with more than 2,220 patents between them, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index,” the companies said in a joint press release issued on Monday. “GM and Honda rank No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, in total fuel cell patents filed in 2002 through 2015.”
The new plant will provide an instant boost for economies of sale and supply chain efficiencies, helping to bring down the cost of fuel cell electric vehicles.
That’s going to take a while: The plant, which will be located in GM’s Brownstown facility, won’t be up and running until 2020.
Meanwhile, Honda is getting a head start with its newly introduced Clarity fuel cell sedan.
For its part, GM is working on fuel cell vehicles with the Department of Defense, which is very much interested in the technology. And last year the company unveiled a muscular new fuel cell tactical vehicle for the military market (pictured above).
Inside the Brownstown plant
The decision to locate the new fuel cell plant in Brownstown is significant from an environmental perspective.
The building itself is a repurposed warehouse, so the reclamation of brownfields is part of the venture.
In its current iteration as a battery plant, the facility is also listed as landfill-free and was certified for environmental performance in 2010 by the International Organization for Standardization.
The Brownstown plant also has historic significance in the electric vehicle field. Here’s the rundown from GM:
“… It is the first high-volume battery assembly plant in the U.S. operated by a major automaker, and is a new business enterprise for GM. The battery facility was converted from an empty warehouse to a production-ready battery manufacturing site in just five months … It opened in summer 2009, after a $43 million investment to manufacture lithium-ion batteries.”
Don’t get too excited about the job creation aspect, though. GM and Honda only expect to add about 100 positions to the Brownstown plant. And no word yet on whether or not battery production will be squeezed out to make room for fuel cells, or if the two will manage to co-exist somehow.
The plant’s current roster includes a total of 120 positions, 90 of which are hourly.
GM steps up for employees affected by immigration ban
The tumultuous first week of the Trump (or some may say Steve Bannon) administration rippled throughout the business community, particularly so with last Friday’s surprise executive order banning U.S. entry by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.
And business leaders are pushing pack with growing force. Honda has yet to weigh in and GM was slow to react, but on Tuesday GM pledged to support any employee affected by the ban. The company also posted a note to its employees affirming its nondiscrimination policy (cited by Business Insider):
“At General Motors, we value and respect individual differences. We appreciate what each individual brings to the team, including background, education, gender, race, ethnicity, working and thinking styles, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, religious background, age, generation, disability, cultural expertise and technical skill …”
According to Business Insider, GM CEO Mary Barra is scheduled to meet with Trump and other business advisors on Friday, so stay tuned for that.
Photos (cropped:) via GM.