Fuel cell technology is a developing industry right across the world. According to the Carbon Trust, the global fuel cell market could be worth over $26 billion by 2020 and over $180 billion by 2050. Furthermore, the UK could enjoy a $1 billion share of this lucrative market by 2020 rising to $19 billion by 2050. To that end, organisations such as the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UK HFCA) are aiming to accelerate the commercialisation of these technologies across the country. Most recently the UK HFCA has been joined in this venture by the Technology Strategy Board which recently announced it will be investing some £75 million in research and development projects concerned with fuel cells and hydrogen energy systems in the UK. The aim is to accelerate the commercialisation of these products by linking them with other technologies and therefore to assist the development of complete low-carbon solutions.
Ultimately, the expanding fuel cell sector is expected to create over 700,000 jobs globally over the next decade. Within the UK over 100 UK companies, as well as over 35 academic and contract research groups, are highly active in current fuel cell and hydrogen research while companies such as Ceres Power, Intelligent Energy and Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems are busy designing products which will revolutionise transport and power markets within the UK.
With such an exciting future for the fuel cell sector approaching rapidly, Renewable Energy Magazine talked to Richard Kemp-Harper, Programme Manager for Intelligent Transport Systems and Services at the Technology Strategy Board to find out more about how the TSB is helping the UK fuel cell sector develop its potential.
What is the role of the TSB?
The Technology Strategy Board is the UK’s innovation agency. We aim to accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation. We do this by connecting businesses with opportunities, with partners and networks and by providing funding to help businesses of every size transform great ideas into the growth products and services of tomorrow.
How has the TSB helped to support the fuel cells industry so far?
We have supported businesses working in these technologies for a while. Over the last five years, including co-funding from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, we have awarded grants of over £40m, and with the business contribution that comes to around £90m of investment overall. This funding has supported technology and prototype development, through to demonstrations such as the Fuel Cell taxi
Most recently the Technology Strategy Board announced funding for five projects integrating fuel cells and hydrogen into complete systems linking energy and transport. Apart from the funding, the framework of our projects also helps businesses to connect with key partners and potential customers to enable their route to market, and this can be as valuable to businesses as the grant.
What kind of innovative devices can we expect from the fuel cells sector in the near future?
The thing about a fuel cell is that it is just a generator of electricity, so it can go into anything that needs power. These can be small portable devices such as phones and laptops, and there are small chargers already available on Amazon. It can also be Megawatt scale generation for industrial applications such as AFC Energy’s planned installation at ICL’s chlor-alkali chemical plant in Essex. There are portable systems suitable for power in off-grid working scenarios such as railway maintenance or Arcola Energy’s systems for the theatre, and of course vehicles such as the Suzuki Bergman Scooter with Intelligent Energy’s fuel cell system and the larger vehicles coming soon from the main car manufacturers. In short, expect to see fuel cells popping up pretty much everywhere there is a need for clean, quiet and efficient power.
How is the market for fuel cells developing in the UK in comparison to markets abroad?
Around the world the fuel cell market is really taking off this year, and the UK is no exception. Stationary power has been leading in terms of commercial system installations, but with the UKH2Mobilty initiative we are well placed in Europe to be part of the rollout of fuel cell vehicles in 2014 and beyond. There are some areas where we are arguably taking a lead too. The role of hydrogen in energy storage and then its use in fuel cell and other vehicles is being explored in a a number of projects As an example, the Renewable Hydrogen Hub project is going to be generating hydrogen from wind farms and using it to power a fleet of fuel cell buses in Aberdeen. This approach to solving both the intermittency problem for renewable energy and at the same time how to generate clean fuel for transport is one area where the structure of the UK market could help put UK businesses in a strong position.
Fuel cells are obviously a very promising green technology but aren’t fuel-celled vehicles likely to be prohibitively expensive for many people in the country?
As with any new technology, particularly one entering a mass-production market like passenger cars, the costs will initially be high until large volumes are reached. As a result in the short term the first vehicles from the main manufacturers are likely to be at the more luxury end of the market which suits fuel cell vehicles as they have the range and driving experience that is expected of that type of car. But I don’t think that’s going to stop you and I being able to experience fuel cell cars soon. There are opportunities for niche vehicle manufacturers to develop smaller, lighter and cheaper cars – Riversimple is an example of that approach in the UK. And we are also seeing different models of car ownership emerging which will enable much wider access to these clean vehicles. The Ecoisland Hydrogen Vehicle Refueller project, which we are funding, is planning to take a car club approach to the demonstration of these vehicles on the Isle of Wight and models like that based on a community of shared ownership could well open up much wider access much sooner.
You recently launched the competition to encourage more fuel cell suppliers into the market? Is the TSB doing anything else to attract more suppliers?
One aim of this competition is to attract suppliers of components or manufacturing capabilities to enter the fuel cell market and support the companies developing fuel cells and systems. Some of these businesses may be working in other sectors already and not yet seen the opportunities that the emerging fuel cell market might bring. This approach of introducing sectors and businesses to each other is one of the strengths of our networking and collaborative approach to driving innovation and something we do in a number of areas. In renewable energy for example, we are working with Scottish Enterprise to support the transfer of capabilities from the oil and gas industry into supporting the deployment of offshore renewables. Across much of our work one of the things we aim to achieve is that the UK becomes a magnet for innovative international companies to base activity here. If we can support a vibrant fuel cell sector working closely with an excellent research base, that can attract businesses from across the supply chain to base themselves here and make the UK a focus for high value jobs in the clean tech sector.
The TSB recently held a collaboration event in London (23rd November) what was that all about and how will it benefit the sector?
That event was focused on helping businesses meet each other to see if there was the potential for them to work together. They can then apply for funding into the competition to explore the partnership. We pulled together some established fuel cell businesses and a range of companies and academics from different areas and ran a “speed networking” session to help them all make as many relevant contacts as possible. One company mentioned to me that they had two good new commercial leads, and hopefully that was true for many of the others attending too. We hope to use events like this, as well as funding, to help strengthen collaboration across the industry to again help make the UK the place to be a fuel cell business in Europe.