Fuel Cells in Northeast U.S.

Northeast US has unrealistic fuel cell EV plans for 2025

The promised future of zero emission technology is not just electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable electric systems.  Fuel cell technologies have long been promised to play a large role in cleaning up the system around us, even though fuel cell deployment rates are very low.  Today the US Dept of Energy held a webinar to discuss the Hydrogen Economy in the Northeast US, with information presented by the Northeast Electrochemical Energy Storage Cluster (NEESC).  Their projection is over 14,000 fuel cell electric vehicles in the Northeast by 2025, and nearly 2,000 stationary fuel cell electrical generation systems.

While both these numbers would represent a huge increase from current fuel cell penetration (which is essentially zero), it seems to me a very low amount.  For example total US battery electric vehicle sales could easily be 14,000 per month (or more), eclipsing the 14,000 FCEV figure.  For example, Tesla Motors could (if their projections are accurate) be selling over 500,000 vehicles per year in the U.S. by 2025.

But, let’s set that kind of issue aside and focus on what was presented.

The image above gives a sense of the scope and breadth of potential fuel cell adoption.  The potential is huge for fuel cells in applications other than passenger vehicles or even bigger trucks.  The clunky form factor and refueling intracacies that make FCEV’s impractical are not a problem with larger applications.

The image shows:

  • Stationary hydrogen fuel cell electricity on-site
  • Forklifts and other industrial fuel cell equipment
  • A Praxair truck servicing (refilling) a hydrogen refueling facility
  • A hydrogen fuel cell city bus
  • Some details of hydrogen fuel cell stacks and the chemical stuff which occurs

In the Northeast U.S., the Northeast Electrochemical Energy Storage Cluster is leading fuel cell planning and policy development across the region.  The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology is a key partner.  The NEESC has published roadmap documents for each state in the Northeast, and those documents are available from either website.  The NEESC website has additional tools to support financial modeling and plotting likely fuel cell infrastructure locations on maps.  The US Dept of Energy is holding a webinar series on fuel cell technology.

Targeted applications of fuel cell technology

Targeted applications of fuel cell technology

This shows where they think fuel cell technology makes sense.  Notice that transportation use (vehicles) is only a small part of this list, and even there it’s mentioned as “Fleet Vehicles”.  Most other instances are various sorts of buildings, most of whom are critical infrastructure.  Hospitals, telecommunication facilities, airports, etc all need reliable power and supposedly hydrogen fuel cells can do so.

The line reading “Wastewater treatment plants and landfills” is a subtle acknowledgement of a fuel cell technology company headquartered in the Northeast.   This company, FuelCell Energy, is based in Danbury Connecticut and has been developing a specific sort of fuel cell for over 15 years that’s extremely suitable to consuming methane from wastewater treatment plants and landfills.  FCEL calls their product “Direct Fuel Cell”, and it uses a molten carbonate system that can consume all kinds of stuff including methane direct from a landfill.

Projected Fuel Cell infrastructure for transportation in the Northeast

Projected Fuel Cell infrastructure for transportation in the Northeast

This map is an example of what NEESC’s tools can do.  It shows projected fuel cell infrastructure needs for the Northeast to support fuel cell vehicle deployment.

Recommended Fuel Cell deployment targets in the Northeast

Recommended Fuel Cell deployment targets in the Northeast

This shows their recommended fuel cell deployment targets by 2025.  These numbers are believed to be in line with other projections such as the adoption of solar power over the same timeframe.  For the projected fuel cell electric vehicle, they extrapolated from California’s projected numbers.  In California it’s expected that overall zero emission vehicle (ZEV) deployment will be 4.5% by 2025, and at least 25% will be FCEV’s.  The numbers shown here apply that same percentage to vehicle sales in the Northeast.  The projected number of refueling stations is derived due to a rule of thumb of one station per 100 vehicles.

To interpolate this a little bit, it implies over $300 million in spending on building hydrogen refueling stations.  The cost for refueling stations in California’s current build-out is about $2 million apiece.  DC Fast Charging stations cost a lot less than that.  That gives battery electric vehicles an economic advantage over FCEV’s because DCFC infrastructure can be built more rapidly at lower cost.

There are very few FCEV’s being sold anywhere currently.  The manufacturing rate for each of the FCEV’s currently on the market is a couple hundred per year.  Getting to 14,000+ FCEV’s in the Northeast by 2025 means selling about 1-2,000 per year over the next 10 years, in the Northeast.  Where will those FCEV’s come from?

By contrast, current total US sales volume of battery electric vehicles is well above 14,000 per year.  I don’t know offhand the percentage going to the Northeast.  However, I’m expecting that as the 200+ mile range battery electric vehicles get on the market in the next couple years, sales of BEV’s will jump dramatically.

Tesla Motors by themselves is projecting worldwide sales volume of maybe 5 million cars per year by 2025, which could be over a million per year in the U.S.  Or, it might be only a half million per year as I suggested above.  Therefore it seems likely battery electric vehicle sales in the Northeast could easily dwarf the FCEV projection shown here.

Hydrogen from…?  Natural gas

Another issue not covered by the slide deck, but alluded to in the Q&A afterward is – what’s the source of the hydrogen to run the fuel cells?  The answer was that the hydrogen will be reformulated from natural gas.  The Dept. of Energy representative said that natural gas infrastructure companies were one of the biggest partners in the effort to define and build the hydrogen infrastructure.

This source of hydrogen, reformulated from natural gas, is a widely used technique and it has been identified as a huge flaw in the hydrogen economy promise.  Hydrogen fuel cells are positioned as ultra clean electricity generation because the only exhaust is pure water.  While that’s true, what’s important for fuel cells is the source of the hydrogen.  And, by the way, the same is true of electricity and electric vehicles, because lots of electricity comes from coal.  In any case, we have to be clear on this, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles whose hydrogen comes from natural gas are just as dependent on fossil fuels as the current prevailing paradigm.


I wonder if fuel cell vehicles will ever get off the ground.  In the movie Who Killed the Electric Car, one of the most interesting lines was that for the last 10+ years fuel cell electric vehicles have been 5-10 years away.  That statement was recorded over 10 years ago, and it seems as completely true today as it did then.

Current FCEV production volume is a couple hundred per year per manufacturer.  That level is appropriate for an R&D sort of activity, to test the market.  Oh, and to capture much-needed ZEV credits, since California’s ZEV Credit rules has tilted the playing field so heavily to FCEV’s.

Nothing in this presentation suggested anything other than this conclusion.  They did not talk about any magic plan by the car companies to quickly ramp up FCEV production.  Nor did they talk about low cost infrastructure development.

Take a look at the infrastructure map shown above.  The NY City and Boston Metro areas look destined to have great hydrogen refueling deployment.  An FCEV owner in Syracuse NY would be essentially trapped by a lack of refueling infrastructure.  Taking a trip to Maine would be very difficult.  Contrast that with DC Fast Charging infrastructure planning and, BEV owners would have a much easier life.

Seems to me that FCEV’s are dead in the water, and the government is wasting its money.

That doesn’t mean all applications of FCEV’s are equally dead.  Situations like a freight yard with an on-site refueling station, perhaps with solar power driven hydrogen extraction from water, could make sense because the infrastructure dependency is easily solvable within a constrained environment.  That map above tells us, however, that refueling infrastructure will not be sufficient to satisfy the general public for general purpose driving needs.

Stationary fuel cell systems are another area where fuel cells make sense.  The hydrogen can be piped to the facility, and the equipment size is similar to other industrial level equipment like HVAC systems.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.
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About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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