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The Hydrogen Industry Met at F-Cell

I visited the Canada pavilion at f-cell in Stuttgart, which is a hydrogen fuel cell industry meet that took place on 10-11 September 2019. The Canada pavilion hosted a smallish, but heavy-hitting delegation of companies, including Ballard and Hydrogenics. Also represented were the CHFCA, the hydrogen industry association in Canada and Blue-O, an innovative key components specialised in electrodes and based in Canada’s hydrogen hub of Burnaby, BC. The fuel cell industry is a great example for the opportunities of collaboration between Canada and Germany.

So what was being talked about? Obviously this was in part a platform for the Canadian companies to present their technology to the European market and that was the major talking point in the CHFCA presentation. Canada has great H2 tech, over 80% of which is exported. Where is hydrogen in Canada? The Vancouver area has emerged over the past 15 – 20 years as a research and production hub for hydrogen technology. At the same time, there are strong hydrogen players in Ontario and Quebec, too.

Ballard talked about their strong presence in German and they took the opportunity to discuss their “Other electric bus” strategy. I really liked that narrative, i.e. positioning fuel-cell as the “other electric”. Electric is something the public understands. In my discussions, I’ve often heard people dismissing hydrogen because they don’t understand that the fuel-cell actually makes electricity and isn’t a storage technology.

Hydrogenics focussed on their modular fuel-cells. That is cool technology that allows you to add power to your existing build as needed. Much like adding hard drives to an array in a server when you need more storage capacity. Just as fascinating are the opportunities offered by the Hydrogenics / Cummins / Air Liquide deal. When you consider the possibilities of Air Liquide’s distribution network alongside Hydrogenics’ excellent fuel-cell technology, I think Cummins has put its money on the right horse. For Hydrogenics, this seems to be a great opportunity as well, as they can tap the negotiating power and client base of the global Cummins group.

Overall, there was a focus on road transport and rail applications. If that’s going to be the focus on the Canadian fuel-cell industry over the coming years, that appears to be a good choice. As the decarbonisation debate grows, the existence of a hydrogen infrastructure for commercial operators could become more attractive to private buyers. There seems to be no debate around the fact that car manufacturers are going to electrify. Imagine if you were able to choose between battery and fuel-cell for your car, much the same way you pick between a gas or diesel engine today, depending on your application.

The fuel-cell discussion reminds me of how important good change management is and the relevance of Kotter’s roadmap for change. Do we have a sense of urgency? Is there a powerful coalition backing the change? Has a clear vision for the change been drawn up and communicated? Have obstacles been removed? Have there been short-term wins? Was the change anchored in new habits? In the hydrogen debate, the urgency is coming from the need for decarbonisation, yet it is debatable whether there is a powerful coalition pushing for it. And there are more powerful coalitions (some provincial governments, big oil, some environmentalists) pushing back. In essence, a goose egg on a clear vision. And we’re all aware of the obstacles still in place.

On top of those basic change management issues, there are some challenges linked to doing business in a country the size of Canada that emerge. Canadians are really pragmatic and tend to lean to simple, less-cost solutions. Given the size of the change we’re looking at here, that’s already a challenge in itself. This was shown clearly with the rejection of the Whistler fuel-cell bus project. It was put in place despite a crazy tight deadline and changing requirements only increased the massive technological challenges. Changes in key people, high operating costs and weather-related challenges came together to end the project.

The current automotive infrastructure has emerged over decades. It is not something that will be changed overnight. There needs to be political will involved here. We need to have a vision to get it into place. We have an evolution occurring alongside a revolution – internal combustion to battery. I remain optimistic for fuel cell. The industry needs to keep working those missing points in the change roadmap and let’s see what the future.

Offering gas stations a subsidy to add a hydrogen tank to their existing network. Or perhaps a tax rebate that one way or the other could make it revenue neutral for big oil to switch over towards hydrogen. No need to store hundreds of batteries along the highways with no real way of knowing where they’re going to be needed.

A marriage of the two cultures

I’m reminded so strongly of change management. This is a classic situation where the need has not yet become strong enough. We have the sense of urgency which is why Ballard’s selling point – it’s not a fuel-cell bus, it’s an electrical bus minus the hassle of batteries. The Canadian roll-your-sleeves up and get things done approach is needed to push through the change. And you need a bit of the German (over-) meticulous planning to do some scenario planning to get the government on side.

I think the challenges facing hydrogen as part of clean tech also show some of the risks of oversized, single-stream energy reliance that we have now. Diversity has got to be key. So much has been invested in batteries and the challenge of getting quick charge. With a simple thought experiment – if a tube trailer can transport 550 kg of H2 in one go, that’d be enough for about 100 customers getting a full tank. A typical gasoline trailer carries about 11,000 l. Enough for aboutt 220 clients at 50l a fill. That’s already half the capacity with existing technology – and not everyone is going to filling up with hydrogen.

Much of this is centred around Ballard, whose importance will grow even more now that Daimler has backed out of and disbanded the AFCC, a fuel cell research consortium that was made up of Daimler, Ford and Ballard (but that’s another story – almost ironically, Daimler had a fuel-cell drivetrain assembly set up right next to the Canada pavilion).