Up until a couple of years ago I have been in the camp that “fuel cells are 10 years away,” which is where they have been for the last 30 years. However, as I commented in a recent tweet that is no longer the case. After that tweet commenting on Katie Fehrenbacher’s post on GigaOm.com re test driving the Mercedes Fuel Cell vehicle I got a reply from Ron Glantz. Ron, who for many years was the number one ranked auto analyst on Wall Street and a successful money manager, has forgotten more about the auto industry than most people actually know. While he claims he truly has forgotten almost everything and has not kept up on the industry, his email to me belies that point and raises some interesting questions. I have copied it below:
“While automakers are still working on fuel cells, apparently they have given up on generating hydrogen in cars by processing gasoline. (I had previously sent you a note saying that the problem was the cost of the platinum used in the catalyst.) Instead, they are counting on hydrogen refueling stations:
- The Nikkei says that the Japanese government is supporting an initiative to draw hydrogen from oil refining. Oil refining uses hydrogen to remove sulfur from oil. The hydrogen used in this process doesn’t have to be high quality, 90 percent pure suffices. Fuel cells expect 99.9 percent pure hydrogen. The sponsored project aims to produce high purity hydrogen, based on “industrial” hydrogen technology”. The Japanese government will bear half the cost of a cheap project. It is estimated to cost 500 million yen ($ 6.15 million) over a three-year period. It wants to be ready before 2015. Why 2015? Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) expects a “wide adoption of fuel cell vehicles by fiscal 2015” and “seeks to secure a steady supply of high-purity hydrogen.” Again: Why 2015? It just so happens that Toyota is dead set on selling its first mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015.
- In Korea, Byung Ki Ahn, general manager of Hyundai-Kia’s Fuel Cell Group, said recently: “There are already agreements between car makers such as ourselves and legislators in Europe, North America and Japan to build up to the mass production of fuel cell cars by 2015.” Indeed, if you go through the many files produced in Brussels, you find that in Europe “car manufacturers are getting ready for the commercial production of hydrogen vehicles by 2015.”
So, now you have a “chicken and egg” problem — how can you sell cars before there are refueling stations; how can you justify building stations before there are cars?” -Ron Glantz, 01/01/11.
Of course this is not a problem for a country that is building into a growth market, e.g., China, India. If one has to build service stations for a growing population of vehicles, anyway, they can just as easily be hydrogen, or natural gas, and, maybe as an interim step, battery recharging or replacement stations. This is an oversimplification, but it highlights the problem facing the developed world when it comes to a new paradigm. Most innovations applied in the developed world are as replacements, not necessarily meeting new demand. A different economic equation which the developed world has to accept or be left behind.