Where Are Fuel Cells In The Storage Race Peloton?

As I have noted, I am not a fuel-cell optimist. One of the world’s premier proponents of fuel-cell based automotive energy storage, Katsuhiko Hirose of Toyota, expects to sell “tens of thousands” of their hydrogen cars by 2020. And California expects to have 100 hydrogen stations by 2024.

We are already making li-ion based electric vehicles at the tens to hundreds of thousands per year levels, and already have over a hundred, 120 kW Supercharger stations, with more every week. And every 220 V outlet in the country can serve as an overnight recharging station. It seems to me like li-ion has already won this race and that Tesla, and researchers like Yi Cui, still have lots more room for rapid and dramatic improvements to li-ion performance.

But things can change fast. If fuel-cells do succeed, if they can scale faster and they overtake folks like Ambri, maybe hydrogen storage for transportation will win. So I have an eye open to ongoing improvements in reducing fuel cell platinum requirements and costs, and increasing reliability, power density, etc. MIT Technology Review gives us some insight on where fuel cells have gotten to.

To review, I think there are two big races: one for lightweight, high energy and power density storage for transportation; and another for stationary, low-cost grid storage. The latter is becoming increasingly important as the cost of wind and solar energy sources plummets but is only accessible at certain periods making storage key. We can speculate that if hydrogen/fuel-cell technology succeeds in the grid storage race, it might also become successful in transportation. My guess is that if battery systems like Ambri’s succeed at the grid scale, it will be hard for hydrogen to make meaningful inroads into transportation.

The MIT article does not change my mind. A prototype grid plant scheduled to open next year able to produce 26,000 MWh of hydrogen in the course of a year? Aquion Energy estimates that it, alone, will make 200 MWh of batteries per year commercially, this year; batteries that can charge and discharge hundreds and thousands of times per year. If we assume just one cycle per day, this yields 73,000 MWh of energy storage capacity on a comparable basis to the prototype hydrogen plant’s capacity. It still looks to me like hydrogen is going to have a hard time catching up.