New technologies cloud the future for the traditional electric utility, but offer hope to the gas industry in boosting residential demand.
Investors apparently were paying attention in January when a Web-based analyst predicted Plug Power's stocks could gain 10,000 percent or more by 2010. Before month's end, the fuel cell manufacturer, which doesn't expect to turn a profit before 2004, saw a ninefold increase from the $16 closing day share price at its October initial public offering. That month Avista Corp. saw a sizable jump in its stock performance when Microsoft chairman Bill Gates took a 5.1 percent stake in the utility holding company. Analysts linked the investment to interest in Avista's fuel cell unit, Avista Labs.
The story has been much the same for any company doing work in fuel cells. Do the facts justify the hype?
Market potential is all over the board. Just one fuel cell design - a 200-kilowatt power plant from ONSI Corp., a United Technologies Corp. subsidiary - has reached commercialization. Nearly 200 of the units have been installed worldwide, but at about $4,000 per kilowatt, price remains a big drawback. On the residential side, EPRI has identified at least 10 fuel cell manufacturers positioned to field test products by next year. Vehicle applications could be deployed in the 2003-2005 time frame, according to EPRI. Batteries and standby power represent yet another fuel cell application. The National Fuel Cell Research Center predicts annual revenues will exceed $10 billion by 2010.