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FCEV unicorn watch: The US Energy Dept. has just launched a new $1 million R&D prize to promote home-scale hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles.

Clean Transport

Energy Dept. Still Chasing Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Unicorn

FCEV unicorn watch: The US Energy Dept. has just launched a new $1 million R&D prize to promote home-scale hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles.

Weren’t we just saying that like it or not, fuel cell electric vehicles are here to stay? CleanTechnica has logged in more nots than likes on the topic, but the fact remains that the Energy Department is still pumping wads of cash into hydrogen fuel cell R&D. The latest development is a $1 million competition, announced just yesterday, to develop affordable small-scale hydrogen fueling stations for FCEVs (fuel cell electric vehicles).

Given the agency’s successful incubation of innovation in the US wind and solar industries, we’re going to keep a close eye on this one.

hydrogen fuel celll electric vehicles (FCEV)

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle fueling station (Image cropped. Courtesy of US DOE).

The FCEV Unicorn

Before we get to the meat of the competition, here’s a quick sketch of the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle issue.

Our colleagues and contributors at CleanTechnica (here’s the latest example) have done a thorough job of outlining the points against FCEVs from the standpoint of technology and costs relative to battery EVs, hence the unicorn reference.

On the other hand, this is not the first time in automotive history that BEVs have made a good run for it. At the beginnings of the industry back in the late 19th century BEVs were poised to dominate the emerging consumer market, only to give way to another form of fuel.

We’re not saying the BEV industry will find a new way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this time around — given the pace of innovation today, the field could swing either way in the foreseeable future, or it could accommodate both technologies. However, FCEV tech has been attracting a lot of time, effort, and dollars in recent years, and those stakeholders are not going to give up without a fight.


With that in mind, our friends over at Energy Storage Report have just come out with a pro/con overview of the future of the energy storage industry, in which they link to an article that leverages a cradle-to-gate lifecycle analysis to make a new case against BEVs. Of course, that article was scribed by a fuel cell industry stakeholder, but then again one of our strongest contributing FCEV critics is a battery industry stakeholder. Just sayin’.

An FCEV Unicorn In Every Pot

Our more immediate concern is the use of natural gas as the primary source of hydrogen for FCEVs. Along with our sister site PlanetSave we’ve covered the natural gas fracking issue exhaustively, which is why we give hydrogen FCEVs the stinkeye under the current scenario.

However, that picture could change pretty quickly as new solar-to-hydrogen technology emerges, and that’s where the new Energy Department fuel cell competition will come into play.

The new competition, called the “$1 million H2 Refuel H-Prize,” is aimed squarely at the distributed market for refueling electric vehicles, which includes homes, retail businesses, and other commercial sites.

Distributed BEV charging has already gone mainstream to the point where major developers are offering new home buyers an integrated charging station package, and it’s becoming a common feature at workplaces and retail sites, too. That puts the FCEV industry way behind the curve now. However, the trend is a good one for the EV industry overall because it mainstreams the idea that individual consumers can integrate their vehicle into a more holistic treatment of household energy use.

The new competition aims to jumpstart home-scale hydrogen production technology, using two fuels that are currently available in most homes. One is natural gas, so we’re not particularly rooting for that side although we should note that many grid-connected BEV charging stations are still supplied by electricity sourced from natural gas and, for that matter, coal.

The other source is electricity itself, and that’s where you’re going to get your renewable energy options for FCEVs, in much the same way that the BEV market can take advantage of improved access to both distributed and grid-connected renewable energy.

Here’s the Energy Department’s happy recap of FCEV progress to date:

With support from the Energy Department, private industry, and the Department’s national laboratories, significant progress has been made in reducing costs and improving performance for fuel cell and hydrogen technologies. These research and development efforts have helped reduce automotive fuel cell costs by more than 50% since 2006. At the same time, fuel cell durability has doubled and the amount of expensive platinum needed in fuel cells has fallen by 80% since 2005.

If you want to get in on the H2 Refuel H-Prize, you can get all the details from the H2 Refuel site.

H2 Refuel and the H-Prize are being administered for the Energy Department by a non-profit organization called the Hydrogen Education Foundation.

The HEF website is rather thin on stakeholder support but if you follow the links to some of their other fuel cell projects, along with Energy Department sponsorship you can get a handle on some of the other stakeholders.

Drop us a note in the comment thread if you find anything of interest there.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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