Nov 292011
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Forty-five Fortune 500 companies are involved in the fuel cell industry

On October 29, a freak early-season snowstorm hit eastern New York and western and parts of central New England, blanketing some areas in as much as two feet of highly unusual pre-Halloween snow. The wet snow coated power lines and trees, many of which still retained their summer foliage, snapping branches and breaking mature trees in half under the weight. The result was a widespread power outage that left many communities – 100 percent of some towns and majorities of entire counties – in the dark. While a power outage in the same area in late summer caused by the remnants of Hurricane Irene left many of the same communities in the dark for several days, this pre-winter power outage proved to be something different.

Not only were two million northeast residents left in the dark, but businesses as well: the gas stations, supermarkets and Big Box stores we’re all used to relying on for power outage supplies. Several Home Depot stores were allowing shoppers to find and purchase goods on the shelves only thanks to the help of emergency back-up power. Schools canceled classes indefinitely, and health care facilities had to evacuate patients. Many municipalities issued “boil water” alerts to town residents, concerned that as they ran out of even generator-supplied power at water treatment facilities, water was entering the public supply without being sufficiently treated to kill microbes. Even emergency shelters, where many residents were forced to go due to freezing temperatures, were running on generators. One Connecticut town, Simsbury, found the outages and the damage so extensive and the response of the local utility – Connecticut Light & Power – so inadequate the town eventually had to deploy the National Guard to begin clearing trees so trapped residents could get out of their homes and emergency vehicles could be dispatched to blocked-in neighborhoods. Simsbury was without electricity for 13 days after the storm.

Several things occurred when the storm and its immediate aftermath was over. For starters, local residents had lots of new firewood for their woodpiles. Secondly, state officials in Connecticut and Massachusetts put together post-storm investigation committees to find out what went wrong and where, all amid accusations that utility executives blatantly lied to local government officials. Third, the head and career of the CEO of Connecticut Light & Power, Jeffrey Butler, ended up on a spike (figurative speaking), a token sacrificial lamb for a utility that, like many others, seems incapable of marshaling the kind of resources required to pick up the pieces after devastating storms.

While the storm may have been unusual, it was not unique. Storms in U.S. southeast in mid-November not only spawned damaging tornadoes but knocked out electricity for many customers in South Carolina and Georgia. In February 2010, a pair of snowstorms days apart knocked out power to more than 200,000 people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor for several days. In late January of 2009, ice storms across Kentucky and Southern Indiana left nearly 800,000 people without power, some of them for more than two weeks.

While the average homeowner may shiver a bit, regret the loss of the contents of his or her refrigerator and grumble about the mess in the yard, the implications are far more serious for businesses, which can lose millions of dollars in the course of just a week. A report conducted in 2004 by the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated that power interruptions in the U.S. result in $80 billion of loss each year. As the national electric grid ages and upgrades to it remain patchy and politically volatile, chances are, these losses will only increase.

While alternate energy sources – particularly the clean ones – are something nice to be able to stick onto the “corporate responsibility” pages on a Web site, they very well may start to become something more than that. While most businesses retain some kind of generator to prevent catastrophic loss in the form of lost sales or spoiled refrigerated goods during power outages, many companies are taking extra steps beyond smelly, noisy and somewhat cranky gas generators. (During the late October northeast storm, many businesses could no longer use their generators when they ran out of gas, since the gas stations themselves had no power and the pumps didn’t work.) As a result, an increasing number of businesses are sinking money into fuel cell technology to help save electricity and costs when it’s on, and save the business when it’s off.

A new report by Fuel Cells 2000, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization Breakthrough Technologies Institute (BTI), notes that businesses are investing in fuel-cell technology at an unprecedented rate. The report, called “The Business Case for Fuel Cells 2011: Energizing America’s Top Companies,” profiles 34 large companies that have recently embarked on fuel cell projects or broadened their existing investments in fuel cell technologies for both their internal operations and their retail storefronts.

“Fuel cells are steadily becoming a go-to technology for businesses interested in increasing both their economic and environmental bottom lines,” notes the report. Not to mention companies that have experience repeated losses from long-term power outages or rolling black-outs.

A spike in interest in commercial fuel cell technologies is a particular boon for the U.S., notes the report. While the solar panel industry may have been lost to China for good now, the U.S. is still uniquely positioned to benefit from the rise in interest in commercial fuel cells. In a report released last year, Fuel Cells 2000 estimated that there are more than 630 active companies and laboratories in 47 U.S. states involved in the fuel cell and related fuels industry, investing an estimated $1 billion a year. The total supply chain for commercial fuel cells involve thousands of American companies, says the group. The top five states for fuel cell-friendly policies and activism are, in order, California, Connecticut, New York, Ohio and South Carolina.

Interestingly, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts – all three hard hit by both Hurricane Irene in late August and the pre-Halloween nor’easter – are among the leader states when it comes to fostering fuel cell development: all three states offer generous state grant programs and tax rebates, as well as energy policies that embrace fuel cell technology. All three states are also home to several major fuel cell manufacturers.

“In addition to being a leader in the private sector use of fuel cells in the distributed power marketplace and the forklift market, the United States is also home to the world’s leading fuel cell and component manufacturers,” according to the report. “Forty-five Fortune 500 companies are involved in the fuel cell industry in some capacity, either through deployment, demonstration or development.” Aside from the manufacture of the fuel cells themselves, many American companies create components for commercial fuel cells.

The U.S. cannot afford to rest on its commercial fuel cell laurels, however. Germany, South Korea and Japan are chasing the commercial fuel cell marketplace hard and all three would be happy to lure fuel cell manufacturers to their own shores, much the way China has lured American solar panel companies away from U.S. soil.

No longer an experimental or mere conversation-starter technology, fuel cells are being used in some of the most prominent U.S. manufacturing, service sector and retail companies…including a few you would never expect. Here’s a taste of who us using fuel cell technology, and for what.

Read more . . .
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