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How Soon is Now?

Looking for Fuel Cell Technology's Future.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2001

fuel cell," he says.

Last spring H Power and ECO took their go-rural philosophy to California for obvious reasons. In May they announced a marketing effort in California for residential fuel cells, appointing Altair Energy LLC, which provides San Diego customers with solar solutions, as their non-exclusive distributor for Southern California.

Which leads us to the next market niche. The Great Western Energy Scare of the last year sent politicians and regulators scrambling to come up with solutions to the region's electricity needs, and the fuel cell still stands poised to reap some of the benefits. FuelCell Energy Inc. and other companies are licking their chops at an initiative headed by S. David Freeman, Gov. Gray Davis's senior energy advisor who is now running the California Power Authority, to buy 20 megawatts (MW) of fuel cell energy by September 2002, 50 MW by 2003, and 300 MW by 2004. The initiative is not a done deal-only a draft request for bid has been issued-but the fact that Freeman is behind the effort, some say, gives it credence. No one is holding their breath, but FuelCell Energy, which has submitted its draft comments to the draft request for bid, remains hopeful.

What would that initiative do for the industry? "If it happens, it is a very big jumpstart for the industry," says Jerry Leitman, president and chief executive officer of FuelCell Energy. Leitman's company may be more excited than most at the prospect of so many fuel cell megawatts up for grabs because FuelCell Energy believes that it will be the first company out with a "megawatt-sized" fuel cell plant. The company believes that it will be about a year or two ahead of Westinghouse in that endeavor.

Is It Ready Yet?

As H Power's McNeill suggested, delays of product launches have dogged the technology industries somewhat, and when someone doesn't follow through on a promise, it's not quite as exciting (or maybe even believable) when the time draws near for the new launch dates. Perhaps such is the case with the fuel cell industry. Product launches are right around the corner, but the buzz is not what it used to be.

But there is no question that the companies are getting closer. Several companies intend to be rolling out products between now and the end of 2002, starting with a product that does not impact the energy industry per se. Not surprisingly, the first products to be available are the smallest. Ballard Power Systems teamed with Coleman Powermate to create a portable generator in the 1-kilowatt range; that product, which at press time had yet to be assigned a name, is to be available by year-end.

The Ballard-Coleman product launch may seem irrelevant to the energy industry, but it is at least a symbolic beginning for fuel cell products, and larger products are following right on its heels. In addition to campers, small commercial users as well will soon have the option of purchasing fuel cell units for their generation needs. FuelCell Energy's plan calls for the company to start taking orders