From hydrogen to blimp-like wind generators

Pierre Rivard, chairman and former CEO of Canadian fuel-cell developer Hydrogenics Corp., has decided after many years as a champion of the hydrogen economy to focus his professional attention on an emerging wind technology with the potential to help developing nations. Rivard announced this week he was leaving Mississauga-based Hydrogenics, which next to Ballard Power is the highest-profile fuel-cell developer in Canada (and among the tops in the world), to become president and CEO of Ottawa-based Magenn Power, which I profiled back in December 2005 (unfortunately the Toronto Star link has expired).

I have to admit, at the time I wasn’t so sure about Magenn’s product, which is a wind generator that floats like a rotating blimp that’s tethered to the ground. It’s a novel and intriguing concept, based on the ideas of Magenn founder Fred Ferguson, who spent half his life studying and advancing the design of Hindenburg-like airships. Ferguson hired former Ottawa-area high tech guru Mac Brown who was then trying to raise $2 million to develop a prototype. This would form the basis for a range of systems from 1 kilowatt to 1.6 megawatts in nameplate power capacity. The goal was to have the first product available by the second half of 2006. That time came and went and, well, I kind of thought Magenn was limited to being a curiosity up against a barrage of skeptics and unable to raise enough capital.

Hiring Rivard, who you’ve got to think did his due diligence, brings credibility to the company and much-needed respect — what it will need to bring in capital. Brown is still around, but he’s now chief marketing officer and interim COO.

I had a chance this week to chat with Rivard about the move and his reasons for giving up hydrogen and fuel cells to pursue wind technology. He said Magenn first approached Hydrogenics to inquire about using hydrogen to lift its larger blimps, since hydrogen is cheaper than helium. The more he learned about Magenn and what it was trying to do the more interested he became, particularly at the idea of mass-manufacturing airships and bringing electricity to unserved areas of the world. Here are some select bits from the interview:

Why Magenn? “It’s a really interesting opportunity. It has a lot of potential for rural electrification and developing countries. This technology would allow the use of renewable energy around the clock regardless of siting. You have the opportunity here to electrify 2.1 billion people without electricity. If you have electricity at the village level, you can have vaccinations, refrigeration, water pumps driving water out of wells, an Internet connection, cellular power sites — you can link it up to these $100 laptops that children could find in these developing regions of the world. All that’s missing is electricity.”

What’s your priority in the new job? “Right now there’s no capital in the company to speak of, but one of my key goals is to accelerate the company by attracting capital.” (He goes on to say the company got a $950,000 grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada and plans to link up with industrial customers, partners and perhaps a university or two for that project).

Why leave Hydrogenics? “It’s been 12 years, and I’ve pretty well made my mark. I’ve averaged over the course of my lifetime 12 to 15 years per job. This new job is potentially the last one I will hold before I retire, but it’s aligned with my clean energy interests and what I’ve been doing for most of my life.”

I’ll have to put Magenn back on my radar screen, but I still won’t be convinced until I’ve seen one of these blimps working. Major challenges ahead, but Rivard is no stranger to challenges given his years at Hydrogenics, which like most of its peers has struggled to overcome skepticism about the future of hydrogen and PEM fuel cells.