Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tuesday's News rife with FC Commercialization

I hope to make some individual posts on the recent news, perhaps tonight. But to sum up:

FuelCell Energy, while still waiting on orders for its CT Project 100 68 MW worth of installations and the still holding Freedom Tower potential, has had its partnership with German Gas Giant Linde bear its first fruit. Linde secured 4 orders for California wastewater treatment totaling 3.9 megawatts. the units are the new technology (20% more power) DFCs, 3/1.2 MW and 1/300 kW. Linde has a bunch (100's) of ww plants as customers, primarily in Germany, but otherwise scattered around the world. CA offers the biggest subsidy, but this bodes well for the future.

Hydrogenics, following fellow canuck Ballard's lead by leaning down its non-FC power business, recently laying off a bunch test equipment employees, has received a follow-on order for 3 of its German midi-buses. The buses will be used in a high-profile Water and Clean development conference in Spain next summer. It's still a shame that FCs remain so low-profile in the US.

In Japan, Matsushita(Panasonic) and Toshiba FC both announced plans for gearing up to mass-produce their mCHP systems to the order of 10,000/year by 2010/2011. Ebara made a similar non-specific announcement with their own Ballard-licensed production, and Nippon Oil clearly has plans (and the resources) to do the same with its recently purchased Sanyo technology and production facilities. They are all assuming they will be able to bring down the reformer cost by then, whether they move to HT PEM or find another solution. Or else they'll have a lot of residential fuel cell systems for sale cheap to anyone with a bunch of hydrogen.

And lastly, on my home front, UMass Amherst garnered a seed grant from the NSF of $1.5M to begin a fuel cell research program, with $10's of millions more in a couple years if they do it right. They'll be trying to figure why fuel cell electrolytes work. I say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But then again, I wouldn't turn down the money.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

One Regime Change Down, One To Go

I've been deeply involved in high-temp PEM for the last week, but outside of another sale (and another press release) by FuelCell Energy of three of the apparently old technology DFC 300 units (described as 250 kW rather than the newer 300 kW - maybe FCE is concentrating the newer stacks into the 1.2 MW configuration and shipping what they have to fuel cell friendly Korea).

But the real big news came overnight from Australia, and it's not the CE certification that CFCL's NextGen mCHP system has received to facilitate EU marketing, should it finally come up with a deliverable system. We finally achieved the much-needed regime change at one of the only two major nations not to sign on to Kyoto: three cheers for Australia voting to oust anti-Kyoto John Howard form office.

The new prime minister will be pro-environment labor party leader Kevin Rudd. He has stated that his first order of business will be to ratify Kyoto.

So maybe now, CFCL will return to its homeland and start making plans for commercialization there in addition to Kyoto-friendly Europe.

Which country will be next?

Back to that left-over turkey (not one of the new influx of wild turkeys sporadically roaming the suburbs as well as the backwoods of New Englan) and cranberry sauce (homemade from local cape Cod cranberries) sandwich.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Nippon Oil Treads where US Oil/Gas Fears To Go

Nippon Oil Company (NOC), Japan's largest refiner and leading supplier of home-heating fuel, has helped bail out financially troubled Sanyo Electric by purchasing its stationary fuel cell business. In a deal faintly reminiscent of last week's Daimler-Ford-Ballard agreement, NOC will form a new company of which it will have an 80% share with Sanyo owning the remainder. NOC has been the most successful participant in the Japanese government's Large-Scale Demonstration Project which has placed around 2000 1 kW co-generation systems in Japanese homes over the last three years.

NOC has developed 2 separate reformers, one producing hydrogen from kerosene that has been packaged with the Ballard-designed Ebara-Ballard stack, and an LPG reformer that has been packaged with the smaller (700w) Sanyo stacks. NOC earlier this year took over primary competitor Cosmo Oil's position in the program, essentially doubling and redoubling its bet on its reformer technology and residential fuel cell co-generation systems in general. Japan sports about 1.2 million new homes per year which are primary prospects for the new technology.

Ballard counts on the Ebara and its Japan co-gen business for future growth - Ballard has not officially reponded to the development as yet. My reasonable take is that all players who can produce a reliable stack (Ballard is now testing for 40,000 hours lifetime, a 2010 goal of the program) will do well if any do, and there is no reason for NOC not to stick with both stacks for the long run. We will probably have to wait until the allocations for the extension year of the program, FY2008, happen in March or April of nex year, and are negotiated by the system marketers and the goverment (NEDO through METI through NEF - don't worry about it).

The FC cogen systems provide base load electricity and much of the domestic hot water and heating needs, cutting GHG emissions (as compared to central-produced power by natural gas) by up to 40%, save users $600/year, and cut all other pollutants to practically zero. The cost has been the major stumbling block, but it appears that Nippon Oil is intent on turning some of its oil profits into distributed fuel cell power production, expecting big returns in the future.

Fuel Cells at Forefront in LA Auto Show

Honda has chosen the pomp and circumstance of the LA Auto Show this week to roll out the first commercially available fuel cell car. Honda has finally named its fourth-generation vehicle, the FCX Clarity. Honda will lease about 100 of them next summer in the LA, where an albeit limited hydrogen fueling infrastructure exists, for $600/month.

The car will be much quieter (I have driven it), cleaner, and cheaper to operate than any other on road - it promises to get up to 68 miles per gallon-equivalent of hydrogen (conveniently about 1 kG). I don't have exact 'at-the-pump' pricing, but hydrogen has been in the $4-$5 range per kG. The DOE target has been to get it down under $3, but that was when gas cost $2/gallon. The Clarity, not in mass production, costs Honda somewhere in the range of $600,000 - $1M to produce, but just getting the gorgeous machines out there will present a real breakthrough for the chicken-and-egg problem for hydrogen vehicles, encouraging more fueling stations. California has been anxious to take pressure off the grid, heavily subsidizing recent FuelCell Energy 300 kW - 1.2 MW stationary installations through its Self-Generation Program. So unless highly-touted plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can be forced to charge-up only between midnight and 6 a.m., the FC vehicles have an upper hand.

Ford said it is going slow with FCVs because of problems with the LiIon rechargeable batteries, which Honda is using in the Clarity, but other more advanced electric vehicles depend more heavily on their batteries than FCVs. And Honda has already used ultra-capacitors in previous versions of it FCX with great success, and they will be getting much less costly and more powerful in coming years. Ford has just purchased a share in Ballard's automotive fuel cell business - it is certainly good for the industry that Ford can complain about the battery and not the FC.

Also demonstrated at the show was a new technology high-temp PEM powered Volkswagen, actually a three-way hybrid. The 'Space Up! Blue' (not one of the classically great VW names) has a large bank of LiIon batteries plus solar panels on the roof. Definitely a concept vehicle. High temp PEM, operating at 120-160 Celsius rather than the standard 60-80, is more forgiving of fuel impurities, eliminates the need for water management, and provides easier thermal management.

I'd go with the Honda.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fuel Cell News News

In checking the dialy fuel cell news on the incredibly reliable and consistant web site of 'Fuel Cell Works' last Tuesday, there was an item about technology innovator and micro FC developer Manhattan Scientifics naming a new CEO.What with the Ballard activity, etc., it took me a while to discover it was Fuel Cell Works own father, the inimatable Manny T. (the CEO of MS will be Emmanuel Tsoupanarias). I was in a panic at first, having come to rely on his Sunday night emails, as well as the comprehensive posting of every item fuel cell from sources around the world, perfectly vetted - yes, quite a bit more human than Google or any other automatons.

But he reasured me that FCW will continue, and noted at the end of tonight's weekly summary that he will even continue with the roll out of a newly updated web design (perhaps in an attempt to keep up with Dr. Kerry-Ann's 'Urban Landscape' themed Fuel Cell Today format, rolled out at the Grove conference in September).

Once again, more indicators that the industry continues to advance in multiple dimensions.

Best of luck to thee, Manny T.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Wrumor Wrap-up

Ballard released the announcement making the sale of their 'automotive assets' [assets refer not only to the technology but to test equipment, related office equipment, and my favorite, 113 employees] to both Daimler and Ford who will jointly form a new company just for automotive fuel cell development.
Considering that Ballard's two year run under John Sheridan has featured a continuous departure from all things automotive, this just represents a final housekeeping move, allowing Ballard to get along with the business at hand, primarily borderline commercial forklift and backup stacks, and near market residential cogen and bus. The rumor stemming from a German news report picked up by Reuters over the weekend, the ensuing discussion, and final announcement along with Ballard's 3rd q earnings report led to some stock fluctuation:
What is interesting is that the biggest move was due to the rumor, not the facts, but who am I to judge.
During the conference call this morning with Ballard principals, everyone seemed relaxed and confident, as if a huge weight had been lifted off them, like superman lifting a car... But they did say that Ballard instigated the discussions. The new company will essentially stay put in suburban Burnaby, and with Ballard keeping a 20% investment in the new company, there will be plenty of IP exchange. Although its possible that the Daimler (50.1%) and Ford (30%) controlled entity could eventually compete in the bus market with Ballard, Ballard is not concerned, and shouldn't considering its lead there and the comparative market sizes (the bus market is squat compared to the far off potential automotive market).
The rational for treating the automotive development as a different animal is primarily that the other markets have received, and continue to receive considerable government funding and support, making it easier to sell a stack at a profit because the end product can be sold at far above market value due to subsidies.
So - good for Ballard, and what was Daimler going to do with all the free time it got from dumping Chrysler anyway?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Siemens SOFC Surfaces in Japan with 125 kW CHP

Siemens' only statement of note at the FC Seminar was that it was shifting its focus from large-scale hybrid power generation to mid-size CHP systems. Its previous foray into CHP was via the now-departed Fuel Cell Technology which used a 5 kW Siemens stack in its few CHP installations, including a successful dormitory placement in Toronto some years back. But FCT handled all the BOP and heating for the system, and upon FCT's demise, Acumentrics ended up with the technology and key personnel, not Siemens.

The scene has now shifted to Japan where Siemens had quietly engineered an development and marketing agreement with technology and engineering conglomorate Meidensha Corporation in 2005, a partnership similar to the successful one forged earlier by Marubeni and FuelCell Energy. It seems that Meidensha has been working on the balance of plant and heating portion, and has been paying close attention to the 250 kW - 1 MW the FCE molten carbonate systems installations by Marubeni, and the recent installations by Fuji of its revitalized 100 kW PAFC systems. Meidensha - know locally as MEIDEN, says it will be ready to install 125 kW system in FY2008 which begins next April, and will provide all operations and maintenance. Applications will probably include waste water treatment and breweries (has your Kirin been tasting different lately?) and the sizable Hospital and Hotel markets.

Siemens only stack relibility and efficiency reporting has come via the required annual DOE SECA documentation, so it's a wait-and-see situation to find out if we will have the first actual commercially viable SOFC installations in the world.

Siemens has claim to the longest-running SOFC development program (is that good?), so success is definitely possible. Regardless, this may put competative Mitsubishi HI and Rolls Royce FC into action with their large-scale stationary SOFC plans.

Talking points: Korea, China, spark spread

Sunday, November 4, 2007

International Rumor Mill

After Ballard gave its vague response to the unspecified rumor, I decided it might be good to find out what the rumor was. Admittedly, it was me in Vancouver last spring who introduced the concept of Plug Power purchasing all Canadian fuel cell companies, but neither Hydrogenics nor Ballard issued denials then. This time, it seems that Daimler and/or Ford (not those in Norway) are jealous of the success enjoyed by GM with its own fuel cell development team (billions and billions....) and may have outbid Plug (kidding here!) for those funky automotive assets.

Of course Ballard will still be providing that wonderful 1020ACS for reverse (backup!) while the automakers have to struggle themselves with the fuel cells for the forward gears.

Probably more on this by tomorrow night.

Hydra boasts too many kWs, not heads

A quick note on the first commercial residential mCHP fuel cell installation in this country by Oregon-based Hydra Fuel Cell. Frank Neukomm (the holding company's CEO) told me last spring when Hydra made the initial announcement that the 8 kW configuration was what they had working, so that's what the luxury villa on the gulf would get. And using the same model as Stephen Voller's luxury yacht, $25,000, 1 kW APU, application, it's all about keeping the beer cold, dummy! Who cares how much you paid for your domicile if you don't have the power for your fridge!

By the way, they don't have to join the USFCC despite the benefits they receive from the hard-working group who provides so much promotion for industry in the US, but it would be nice if companies like Hydra and California's Altergy showed up at at least one of the too many industry conferences, just to prove they're one of us.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

San Antonio Memories

I have been too busy celebrating my second visit to San Antonio this year without once seeing the Alamo. I do remember it though, particularly when I have to rent a car or see a racoon.

On the other hand, there were plenty of fuel cell representatives from around the world at the Henry B. Gonzalez convention center (or The Hank as only I know it - ask the locals about Henry's history the next time you're in town), and plenty of conspicuous absences as well. Plug and ReliOn, both with complimentary telecom backup products in international distribution, were among the missing. GE for the first time in recent memory was low profile as were all car manufacturers despite a raft of press releases from the various international car shows -a new land distance record from the Toyota FCV, Honda going commercial with FCX Concept vehicle about to get a name and be sold in 2008 for about $100,000, and GM putting 100 of their FCVs on the road, albeit on a trial basis. But fuel cell supply-siders were everywhere, clearly getting increasing real business from developers. On the car makers, someone did comment that when you're in the pre-commercial stage, you often want all the hype you can get, but when you're on the verge and think you've nailed the technology and marketing strategy, you discreetly quiet down to maintain the competitive edge.

For me the week in Alamo country started slow - plenary sessions were good and exhibit hall plenty busy, but it was too hot outside, too cold inside (not good with energy independence being the theme for the 31st annual FC Seminar), and the Tuesday evening reception in the exhibit hall featured a cash bar with a couple canned beers for sale and no food to be had of any type or cost - indicative of a lack of sponsorship. Maybe I'll pony up next year. But although there no grand announcements or demonstrations like at the otherwise much quieter Grove in September or the April Hanover Fair, and the technology sessions, exhibits and posters were fairly well mixed up with the product and commercially oriented ones, there was an ever present synergy of purpose and agreement that patience will breed success at last for the industry.

Highlights for me: Dr. Andreas Mai from Hexis giving an update on their reborn SOFC, confirming that he actually one of the three new hires by the Swiss company, and countryman Olivier Bucheli representing Swiss SOFCpower, as HTceramix with its new mix of Italian expertise is known. In attendance were no less than three representatives from low-profile Racine thermal management expert Modine Manufacturing. Modine is now working with Ceres Power and even lower-profile Bloom Energy as well as Ballard, and lent some expertise to my presentation on the importance of thermal management to the optimization and commercialization of fuel cells. Never shy Arno Evers continues his creative promotion of the industry, despite giving up control of the Hanover H2+FC pavilion, with his sponsorship of the exciting student competition and his team of fuel cell jugglers accompanying him from Germany. And from the supply side came a concerted push from Vairex's Ski Milburn for ethanol-powered portable fuel cells for laptops, as small containers of hydrated ethanol are already available for sale on most commercial airliners. The concluding Friday morning CEO round table was excellent, with both contrasts and similarities showing up in unexpected places in the diverse group. Both Mark Fleiner of international powerhouse Rolls Royce Fuel Cells and Jeff Bently, leader of eight-engineer strong CellTech are confident they'll have successful commercial products within two or three years, and aren't interested in any outside investment. Topsoe's Helge Holm-Larsen stressed patience, IdaTech's Harol Koyama perseverance, and Sam Logan offered the voice of hands on experience like no one else (save Dr. Mike) can.

I'd like to thank Dr. Rolf Rosenberg of the VTT Research Centre for pointing out after my presentation that Finland is surrounded by Sweden and Russia, and it's Norway that has all those Ballard fuel cell powered fjords. And we should all wish Dr. Ruairi (you pronounce it, or ask Frodo for help) MacIver the best of luck and largest of grants for taking the clean energy battle to his Hebridean Celtic island outpost - they need more than music to survive.

Next Year in Phoenix (hopefully an iconic rather than ironic location for the 32nd...)!