Hydrogen economy? Maybe not, but Ballard Power is surviving just the same

My Clean Break column in the Toronto Star today takes a look at a former darling of the fuel-cell industry, Ballard Power — remember those guys? Ballard was the hot kid on the block back in the late 1990s, when people still bought the idea that a hydrogen economy built around fuel-cell vehicles was just around the corner and Ballard would take us there. The vision was tempting. There are no greenhouse-gas emissions, no pollutants associated with the use of hydrogen to energize a fuel-cell car. Ballard also had — and still has — great technology. Unfortunately, it was really expensive, and the hydrogen infrastructure to support the introduction of fuel-cell vehicles just didn’t exist, nor was there a rush to make it happen. The company had its believers, including yours truly, and investors were also along for the ride. Ten years ago, the money-losing company had a market cap of more than $8 billion. But as we entered the 21st century, as it became clear that the hydrogen economy was a far-off target, and as excitement grew around battery-powered vehicles, Ballard started its downward spiral. In 2007 it sold off its automotive fuel-cell business and decided to focus on less sexy markets: forklifts and backup power. The company is still losing money, but it may actually break even next year, at least on an EBITDA basis. Revenues are growing. Costs are coming down. It turns out that niche markets can pay the bills. And now the company, a sliver of its former self (in terms of market value) is turning its efforts to distributed generation with a 1-megawatt product that makes oodles of sense, particularly in remote markets that are heavily dependent on diesel generators.

I’m delighted that Ballard is finding its way. It has inspired many spinoffs. It anchors the Vancouver cleantech scene. It’s the rock star that hit it big, rose quickly, then crashed into relative obscurity, only to emerge several years later with a more mature album that, while not having mass-market appeal, is critically acclaimed and attracting loyal followers.