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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Pairs Up with Japan to Boost Hydrogen Fuel Cells

By Tina Casey

Back in 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy provided the $465 million loan that launched the Tesla electric vehicle phenomenon. Tesla repaid the loan early, and the company's runaway growth is a good indicator of the Energy Department's success in picking winners. With that in mind, it looks like hydrogen fuel vehicles could be the next breakout, zero emission cars to benefit from the agency's helping hand.

Yes, Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are for real

Until recently, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles were something of a running joke among auto industry observers. Here's the joke:

Neophyte: They say hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are about to happen!

Auto journalist: Yes, and they've been saying that for the last 30 years!

Well, it looks like the joke is on the experts.

Virtually all major auto manufacturers are now developing fuel cell EVs. Toyota is probably the best known early adopter with its fuel cell Mirai sedan. Fuel cell vehicles also provide a mobility aspect for the company's broad "hydrogen society" vision, which will hopefully include a healthy dose renewable hydrogen.

In another standout example, GM recently made waves by introducing a new fuel cell EV platform aimed at replacing light duty diesel-powered military vehicles among others.

GM designed the platform to double as a stationary power source when parked. That's a significant development considering the growing interest in microgrids, including the use of microgrids for military use and emergency response.

Energy Dept. charts fuel cell growth

Although no single company has benefited from an Energy Department loan on the scale of $465 million, the Energy Department has been plowing millions into R&D projects aimed at bringing down the cost of fuel cells and related equipment and building up a network of hydrogen fuel stations.

Millions of taxpayer dollars are also going into solar-power water splitting and other renewable sources for hydrogen. That's a critical step, considering that the primary source for hydrogen is fossil natural gas.

Last week the agency recapped its efforts in a report timed to the observance of the third annual National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day (yes, there is a National Fuel Cell Day, and it's always on October 8 -- 1.008, get it?).

The full Fuel Cell Technologies Market Report is available as a free download. For those of you on the go, the major finding is that stationary power systems, including backup power, are among the largest markets for hydrogen fuel cell technology today. The report inlcudes fork lifts and other logistics equipment in that category, too.

The stationary and logistics market is still relatively small, with only 62,000 units shipped globally in 2016. However, the report notes that in terms of total megawatt capacity, the number has doubled in just two years, to 500 megawatts  double the number just two years ago, in 2014.

More to the point, the report notes that on a capacity basis, the hydrogen fuel cell market for transportation -- aka fuel cell electric vehicles -- has tripled.

U.S. looks to Japan for Hydrogen fuel cell magic

Much of the rapid growth in hydrogen fuel cells for transportation is riding on the efforts of car makers in Japan and Korea. With that in mind, another recent announcement from the Energy Department is significant. Last week, the agency announced that its Fuel Cell Technologies Office will team up with NEDO, its Japanese counterpart, to accelerate the hydrogen and fuel cell trend.

The announcement was pretty low key, amounting to a total of just two paragraphs. Here's the second one:

DOE and NEDO will collaborate to collect and share data regarding early-stage R&D and safety of hydrogen and fuel cells, including data from hydrogen fueling stations and fundamental hydrogen research safety. The United States and Japan will work to apply that data for guiding future research and enabling the safe deployment of fuel cells and hydrogen infrastructure technologies. In addition, DOE’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office and NEDO plan to hold a joint workshop on hydrogen in the coming months.

That sounds like a lot of data-shuffling, but the new partnership will have a powerful impact on the hydrogen fuel cell market.

Aside from accelerating fuel cell R&D, the new partnership could also ramp up the transition out of fossil-sourced hydrogen. In a public-private partnership, Japan's Toyota is already experimenting with wind powered water-splitting in systems integrated with shipping and logistics, and the company recently announced a fuel cell initiative with 7-11 that could dovetail with rooftop solar power.

Toyota is also envisioning entire zero emission "hydrogen societies," and it recently announced a major R&D investment to back it up.

Meanwhile, over here in the U.S. it looks like things are already rolling. To cite just one big news item, last week GM unveiled a multi-use fuel cell vehicle platform that the company will leverage to reduce its fleet greenhouse gas emissions.

It's a good guess that Tesla's Elon Musk is not sweating, but as the saying goes: Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.

Photo: via US Department of Energy.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey