Industry, or manufacturing, gets little respect in the mainstream of American politics and economics. Yet it is industry that is often the proving ground for new technology. This is because many industrial applications of technology succeed or fail on cost and performance. Rarely does the American government get into the act by putting tax incentives into law for the purpose of promoting an industrial technology.
Hydrogen power based on fuel cell technology has been a mixed bag. George W. Bush put $1.2 billion in taxpayer funds into the technology in 2003, and personally, I am not sure we have seen much benefit for it. The Bush program was focused on automotive applications of fuel cells which have not gained market acceptance. The reason is simply that almost none of the 170,000 refueling locations sell hydrogen. And no major oil and gas company, no industrial gas companies, want to make the investment in pumps and distribution to sell hydrogen.
Ironically it is with the staid, almost boring, industrial fork lift that hydrogen fuel cells are gaining traction (pun intended). I don’t know how much government money is making its way into this arena. Given the estimated $25 billion worldwide market for fork lifts, the emerging trend toward electrics and the success of hydrogen fuel cells is something to take note of. Plug Power, whose efforts are focused on the fork lift market is building a healthy business, ramping this year to a $30 million plus sales rate.
The driving forces (more puns) are simple, fuel cell fork lifts are more economical to operate and healthier to work around. Hydrogen fuel is converted to electricity and water exhaust. In material handling applications such as distribution warehousing, these machines operate indoors and the improved air quality, i.e. employee health, has to be a major consideration. Lead acid powered fork lift trucks require battery charging rooms with highly corrosive acid vapors that have to be managed. Waterless lead acid batteries are available at a premium. Battery powered fork lifts require battery replacements during a work shift to keep them in operation. Fuel cells can be “refueled” in minutes and no change out is required.
Environmentally progressive companies like WalMart, BMW and many others are jumping on this bandwagon. I think it is incredibly ironic that BMW would be using hydrogen powered fork lifts to help make gasoline powered cars. Maybe that’s just me.
Are we closer to clean burning cars? No. The problem of supplying hydrogen to millions of drivers remains as the major obstacle. Not insurmountable, but definitely an issue. There are, however, niche markets like metropolitan buses and school bus fleets where the technology can be applied immediately. We can hope for the “invisible hand” of the free market to operate and bring these applications to the market. Of maybe someone in government will wake up and help seed the change.