Fuel cells have potential for fledgling businesses

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Hydrogen might be the future of energy for the United States, but it’s also the future of big business in Colorado.
Analysts at the University of California at Irvine foresee a fuel cell industry with annual revenue exceeding $10 billion by the end of the decade. And some of that industry is being created in Colorado – from Littleton to Montrose, from Boulder to Golden.
With the opening of the Colorado Fuel Cell Center, several companies in Golden, Denver and other parts of the state are beginning research and development projects focused on fuel cells, said Executive Director Rob Remick. Some of the companies are start-ups, but others have been researching hydrogen fuel cells and their potential for decades, he said.
Colorado companies are working to develop fuel cells, applications for the products, materials and supplies, as well as education and information, Remick said.
“Now is the time to invest in these companies,” he said. “They’re all looking for venture capital to start major projects. With the attention given to hydrogen fuel cells, investors really will be getting in on the ground floor.”
For example, CoorsTek in Golden has been making ceramics for industry since 1910. The company has created advanced ceramic components for the fuel cell industry —ceramic tubes and specialty substrates that are part of the internal fuel cell.
A Littleton company, ITN Energy systems, researches energy generation and storage devices for fuel cells. The company says its technology programs are focused around a specialization “that enable us to transition into cost-effective manufacturing and subsequent commercialized products.”
In Montrose, the Delta-Montrose Electric Association is evaluating joint venture and sales opportunities to market hydrogen powered fuel cells in the intermountain west.
“The initial residential application of fuel cells is likely to be where they make economic sense,” according to the company’s Web site. “In many areas which DMEA serves, utility line extension costs are high ($20,000-plus/mile) and the customer pays a significant portion of the cost of extending power to property. In addition to access to electricity being more expensive in many instances than the cost of the land itself, easements and right-of-ways can be difficult or expensive to acquire. In these circumstances, fuel cells offer a cost-effective solution to property owners.”
Tom Polocollus, a spokesman for the utility, said the association has been demonstrating fuel cells since 2000 for the military and the federal government. He said Delta-Montrose is talking with several companies that expect to begin selling residential fuel cells during the next year.
“We’re looking at manufacturers who have a product ready for market,” he said. “We’ve seen the technology and we know what it can do. We’d use it for the properties outside our grid that don’t have electricity right now – it’s just too expensive to put them on the grid. But with the residential fuel cell, they would have just as much electricity as if they were on the grid.”
Fuel cells are still very expensive, he said. Hospitals, universities and the military are the only groups using large fuel cells, but he hopes smaller ones built for residential use will be available in the near future.
Remick said the field is still developing, despite decades of research. Development will continue, especially as the federal government offers incentives to find inexpensive methods of creating hydrogen.
“There are all kinds of new, exciting areas to invest,” Remick said. “It’s one of the reasons we opened the Colorado Fuel Cell Center here. Colorado has some very high-tech companies working on this research. We’re still at the ground floor, and once we work out some of the technical issues – such as the way to make hydrogen – it will be a booming business.”