Why Solar: Fuel cell technology is here to stay

In 2002, British Columbia was the first province in Canada to open a hydrogen fueling station. In 2018 Shell opened the province’s first retail hydrogen fueling station in Vancouver’s Marpole neighborhood with plans for two more. Quebec has opened two H2 refueling sites, and the provincial government announced in 2018 they would be purchasing 50 fuel cell vehicles for their fleet.

Hydrogen infrastructure will take time to become commonplace, but it is happening. Consider the state of California with 35 has more hydrogen refueling stations than any other jurisdiction in North America. Still, it only places third worldwide to Germany’s 45, and Japan’s 91.

The hydrogen economy, while still in its infancy, is growing, and technology is rapidly moving to support the changeover. While Tesla founder Elon Musk has publicly stated the fuel cell vehicle is “mind-bogglingly stupid,” the technology is moving ahead as Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford all continue developing fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) programs.

The fuel cell has been extensively investigated and improved. Scientists at the Energy Research Centre at the Univesity of Waterloo in Ontario have recently developed a new fuel cell that has 10 times the life of current modules. This increase in fuel cell longevity will bring the cost down to where they are comparable, or even more economical than an internal combustion engine.

The cost-effectiveness was achieved when they solved a design problem with longevity. By making the fuel cell deliver constant voltage rather than fluctuating continually, durability was enhanced. The first application envisioned by Xianguo Li, director of the Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab at Waterloo is hybrid electric vehicles that currently use an internal combustion engine to charge batteries and extend the range of the automobile.

Ballard power of Vancouver, Canada’s leader in fuel cell modules, is known for their work on the fuel cell buses that run in Vancouver and cities around the world. They recently announced an initiative to provide tractor trailers with their next generation FCmove®-HD fuel cell modules in response to the industry- leading program of the Alberta Zero-Emissions Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC). Bison Transport and Trimac Transportation will be running B-train tractor trailers for the interval of testing until 2022, between Edmonton and Calgary, to asses the merits of the heavy-duty fuel cell in commercial transport. These outsized vehicles with a GVW (gross vehicle weight) of some 64 tonnes are the first FCEVs of this size to be built and tested anywhere on the globe.

The AZETEC project is a result of more than a years worth of research, data analysis, and the modeling done by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research initiative. Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), formerly the CCEMC, is contributing $7.3 million to the project in collaboration with DANA, Nordessa, Freightliner/Daimler, Praxair, and the Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corp.

Fuel cell technology is here to stay and fill a niche that Mr. Musk does not have the foresight to see. Could depleted oilfield infrastructure be repurposed to provide Hydrogen for Alberta and the nation?

Lorne Oja can be reached at lorne@carbon2solar.com

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