Ballard Power
Politics, Religion and BLDP

Format for Printing

Format for printing

Request Reprints


By EricCarr
February 14, 2001

Posts selected for this feature rarely stand alone. They are usually a part of an ongoing thread, and are out of context when presented here. The material should be read in that light. How are these posts selected? Click here to find out and nominate a post yourself!

Our discussions on this board often seem almost compulsively drawn toward energy politics and alternative-fuel advocacy. This is something that, IMHO, needs to be reconsidered and, I would ask, put to rest. Here's my case.

Technological revolutions have a well-documented and fairly predictable path toward market acceptance and, eventually, to ubiquity. Some of the key points along this path include: the attraction to the technology intellectually; the recognition that this technology yields an improvement over the current technology it intends to augment or supplant; the ability to deliver this technology to a large population; the subsequent ability to deliver this technology at an affordable price; the acquiescence by the major players in that technology's market to the technology's inevitability; and finally the widespread distribution of said technology.

An Example
Any disruptive technology generally follows this curve. Consider digital subscriber lines (DSL) as an example. DSL lines are in the final segments of this path. The incumbent phone companies, under considerable market pressure, are starting to roll out the capability to the masses, who will then gain access to a technology that is far superior to old 56k modems, and doesn't cost all that much more than dial-up access.

Fuel cells are not much further behind on the path - they're becoming economical, and many of the big energy companies are lining up to fuel them once they arrive in the market. There is, however, a key difference, and my fear is that this difference could actually be harming the growth of FCs. That difference is evangelism combined with politics.

Every new technology has its boosters, who are quite vocal about it (appropriately so, IMHO, and I count myself as an FC evangelist). And that evangelism can often bleed over into the political arena, as has sometimes been the case with DSL. The vested interests will call upon politicians to help fend off this technology. In truth, the more revolutionary the technology, the louder these calls can be. However, in the case of DSL, the attractiveness of the technology has pushed through this resistance, and is becoming widespread. Indeed, if anything, the pressure is now on the phone companies to quicken its deployment of DSL technology.

Now to my point.... :-)

Applying this example to Fuel Cells
The FC community can, and should, learn from this. FC technology is very revolutionary, and by its nature it is attracting a lot of enemies who fear the effects that FCs will have on their established businesses. As was the case with DSL, FCs will only succeed once the case for them becomes undeniable, and the momentum behind them becomes unstoppable. Early advocates of DSL took great pains to also court politicians, if for no other reason than to reassure them that no, in fact, the regional Bells wouldn't be killed off by this. Neutralizing, or at least denting, political opposition to DSL lowered a key barrier to its move into the marketplace. Politicians did not try to prevent it from succeeding - in fact, they altered several telecommunications laws to foster it.

My fear is that the Fuel Cell community, in its (appropriate) enthusiasm for the technology, is unwittingly making market acceptance harder. Specifically, by carping at the new administration, incumbent oil companies, and any advocate of oil exploration, we may be alienating the very people we need to attract to this technology.

The case needs to be made, and made clearly, that FCs are a Good Thing (TM). Those who chant "death to the oil companies" only raise the (unwarranted) suspicions of the oil companies and of politicians, who fear the specter of massive layoffs as oil companies collapse. Those who snipe at the politicians only raise their level of suspicion about FCs and make them wary of their adoption and widespread acceptance. This has already happened with electronic encryption. The governments of the world, in their darkest fears, are convinced that people will use this to overthrow or attack them. It's made for an acrimonious situation, and led to the U.S. government's ban on the export of certain encryption technologies, a move that stifled the market for several years.

Pro-Oil, Pro-Fuel Cells
The truth of the matter is that these two issues are not really related. In California, the power problem is acute, and needs to be solved right now. New oil reserves will need to be identified and tapped to supply petroleum and its derivatives for a wide variety of uses that FCs will never impact. Drilling in the ANWR should only be a question of environmental concerns v. oil needs, not of its impact on fuel cells.

Fuel Cells will win the market only by winning the market. The government cannot mandate them, and the auto makers cannot force them on people. To be honest, I don't ever expect the internal combustion engine to disappear, if for no other reasons than the nostalgia factor and the sounds of a big V-8 rumbling down the road. And, to be honest, I'm content with that, and fully believe that both FC and IC engines can coexist in the world.

A Final Note
The stars are already aligning for fuel cells: they are accepted as having benefits that IC engines cannot match, both environmentally and in terms of performance and efficiency. FC generators can bring performance benefits to smaller devices that batteries cannot achieve. FCs can give people a more stable power grid by making possible truly distributed power. Manufacturers see this, and are beginning to embrace the technology. The oil companies see the inevitability of FCs in the marketplace, and are making plans to fuel them.

The last step is the politicians, and it is a big step. A healthy skepticism is good, but antagonism and demonizing will only raise their hackles. We have to recommend that the issue of FC adoption is a long-term question, and that the answer is an inevitable yes. We need to lobby our politicians to ease their path, or at least to not impede it. But we should take great care to do this with a civility and confidence befitting of such an unquestionably positive and revolutionary technology. We ultimately don't need the help of governments to make fuel cells a success, but their opposition could indeed make them a failure.

Okay, that's my $.02.


"Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else get your way."