13-07-17 Public Outreach for Fuel Cells

Public Outreach for Fuel Cells

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17 Jul 2013PDF (397 kb)

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13-07-17 Public Outreach for Fuel Cells

Fuel cell manufacturers have worked hard for many years to reduce the cost and increase the durability of their systems in order to successfully commercialise their products. Early adopters have embraced the technology and in a large number of industrial applications fuel cells are becoming an established technology option; but what is being done to educate and prepare the general public for wider product launches? The consumer market is undoubtedly more difficult to engage with than the industrial sector, and although some work has been undertaken to promote fuel cell technology to the general public, much more is needed.

The largest commercial rollout of fuel cells to the general public to date has been under the Ene-Farm scheme in Japan. Here a number of fuel cell manufacturers and gas utilities have grouped together under a single brand to provide a domestic energy solution for customers. Selling a solution and not a fuel cell is an important approach, and one that others around the world are beginning to adopt. This approach has been successful in Japan and the public recognises the brand and knows the principle behind what the Ene-Farm residential combined heat and power (CHP) systems do, but those members of the public we have spoken to that know the brand do not necessarily know what a fuel cell is. Nor should they really, as we happily drive our cars and heat our homes but how many of us could explain how the Otto Cycle governs the operation of internal combustion engines? Or discuss the limitations of heat engines as defined by the Carnot Cycle?

The Ene-Farm scheme has steadily grown since its beginnings as a small demonstration program ten years ago and is now selling around 50,000 systems per year. Due to continued development the fuel cell systems have been optimised, reducing their size and the number of individual components. Costs have steadily decreased, also aided by the economies of scale of selling in large numbers. This has meant that financial support from the government can steadily be reduced and it is hoped this can be phased out altogether over the next few years allowing the technology to sell unsubsidised.

Hopefully as the current tranche of European demonstration programmes for residential CHP fuel cells, such as Callux and Ene.Field, conclude and commercial sales of fuel cell CHP systems commence in Europe, the market will reach a similar level of maturity as it has done in Japan and customers will buy products based upon cost, efficiency and environmental impact (if they are so inclined), without necessarily concerning themselves with the technology contained within. A number of the Japanese fuel cell manufacturers are partnering with European companies to develop products for the European market, but it will take time before the market here grows to a similar size as that in Japan.

Outside of the Japanese Ene-Farm scheme, the majority of public outreach projects for fuel cells have centred on the automotive industry. Initiatives such as the California Fuel Cell Partnership, General Motors’ Project Driveway, the Mercedes-Benz World Drive, and the European Hydrogen Road Tour have raised the profile of fuel cell vehicles for short periods of time, but since the vehicles are not yet available for the public to purchase, sustained marketing efforts have not begun in earnest. All of the initiatives mentioned above have either placed vehicles into the hands of consumers, or allowed the public to see, and often drive, fuel cell electric vehicles. This is important because people will need to be familiarised with the new technology, experience the benefits, and understand they have nothing to fear from it.

Many urban myths still exist among members of the public surrounding fuel cells, and it is common to hear quotes such as: “the technology is ten years away”; “isn’t it a hydrogen bomb?” But for those who have used the technology, the response is the polar opposite with statements like: “awesome“, “quiet”, and “I love it, I want some more of it.”

Until such time as fuel cells are widely available to the public there is limited benefit in spending large sums of money on advertising, but public awareness can be raised through more informal channels such as the light-hearted viral advertisements for fuel cell vehicles published online by Honda, and through outreach groups such as the Clean Energy Partnership (video 1, video 2). I have only ever seen one television commercial which had a fuel cell vehicle in it, which was Honda’s updated Impossible Dream commercial featuring its FCX Clarity, although it was a brief cameo! Daimler’s invisible car project was a fun and unique way to show off the technology on the streets of Germany, making a car that is ‘invisible to the environment’ invisible to the public, and familiarising the public with the technology before the market introduction of fuel cell vehicles in the country.

As the date for the commercialisation of fuel cell vehicles draws nearer we will almost inevitably see a lot more advertising from automotive companies, keen to develop interest in the vehicles. This date is not too far away, and Toyota is expected to unveil the production model for its fuel cell vehicle at the 2013 Tokyo motor show later this year.

Hyundai Motors has already begun serial production of its ix35 Fuel Cell and expects to manufacture 1,000 vehicles up to 2015, and then 10,000 units from that year in line with consumer demand. It recently launched a UK website dedicated to its ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle containing a wealth of images showing the car driving past landmarks in London. The site also includes a history of Hyundai’s involvement in developing fuel cells and video interviews with Deputy Mayor for Business and Enterprise, Kit Malthouse, who is an outspoken supporter of hydrogen fuel cell technology and Chair of the London Hydrogen Partnership. Five of the vehicles are to be delivered to London imminently.

In summary, public outreach is very important when introducing any new product, but to truly make an impact the fuel cell products themselves must be available. Thankfully we are now at that stage, and we expect to see a lot more promotional activity in the coming months and years.

Dan Carter     Manager



Image: CAFCP's GO Campaign and a pair of Japanese Ene-Farm controller units


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