Ballard: a sliver of sunshine on another stormy day

Working in the business section of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, I have to say it’s been tough watching the markets. If you think the U.S. has been getting battered, Canada’s commodity-heavy exchanges are getting crushed. So on yet another day that oil sands and potash producers got their teeth knocked out, it was great to see Ballard Power standing out from the crowd with a 4 per cent gain yesterday. The Vancouver-based fuel cell developer, no stranger to tough times, announced it had landed a contract that will see 10,000 5-kilowatt fuel cell units sold to India’s ACME Group and IdaTech, which will form a joint venture aimed at deploying the fuel cells for back-up power in the telecom industry.

For the forever-emerging fuel cell industry, this is a major deal. “The 10,000-unit volume will enable significant cost reductions and this new low cost, natural gas fuel cell product will be an important enabler for the acceleration of product adoption in other stationary power markets,” said Ballard CEO John Sheridan, who as former president of Bell Canada appreciates more than most the potential of using fuel cells in the telecom industry.

The first 1,000 units will be delivered in 2009, with the other 9,000 delivered the following year. Ballard is right to focus its energies on the stationary power market, given the tremendous need for energy storage on both a small and large scale. It seems like only yesterday when I was enjoying lunch with former Ballard chairman and CEO Firoz Rasul talking about the mass-market availability of fuel-cell cars in 2010. Oh, how naive I was back then. I remember chatting with the head of Canada’s fuel cell association as he talked about the importance of going after automobile fuel-cell applications first, because “once we get that right everything else flows from there.”

Um, not exactly. What I’ve learned since then is that fuel cells will play a growing role in a greener economy, but it won’t be “the” economy — i.e. the Rifkin hydrogen economy. And it won’t, despite the crazy lectures from Honda, be in the passenger vehicles most people drive. Too much has happened in the cleantech world since that lunch with Rasul, and the hydrogen infrastructure problem isn’t any closer to being solved five years later. At the same time, if deals like the one with ACME and Idatech help a company like Ballard lower production costs of stationary fuel cells, there’s a greater chance we could see these devices in our homes and businesses and integrated in the smart grid in a not-so-distant future.

One thought on “Ballard: a sliver of sunshine on another stormy day”

  1. “What I’ve learned since then is that fuel cells will play a growing role in a greener economy, but it won’t be “the” economy — i.e. the Rifkin hydrogen economy.”

    I find this quote interesting. Even if Rifkin was wrong–famously wrong–he still made a valuable contribution to the discussion. He must be the first person to describe so completely a viable alternative to the fossil fuel economy. It may not have come to pass, but who knows if Rifkin’s act of imagination helped to spur someone like Shai Agassi’s imagination. These sorts of scenarios certainly get the mind working. Mature technologies develop in a linear fashion, but innovations tend to make horizontal jumps. Fuel cells may have more surprises in store. None of us can predict how, or when, the energy revolution will come (my guess is it’s closer than we think.)

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