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What Will Drive Electric Vehicles Of The Future? Fuel Cells From Ohio

Tim Rudell
SARTA, the regional transit system in Canton, has the third-largest fuel cell bus fleet in the nation.

There’s more than one-way to power an electric vehicle. The one most people are probably familiar with is through batteries. However, there’s another way to generate electricity for cars that, after 40 years in development, is finally becoming more science fact than fiction. And it’s happening in Ohio.

Fuel cells create electricity by chemical reaction. Their only emissions are water vapor, so environmentally the technology is very attractive.  But, its development has been slow because of cost and infrastructure challenges.

That's changing, says Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

“We have been funding research that enables fuel cells to be commercial. And we have had lots of progress," Satyapal said during a regional fuel cell conference in Lorain last month. "We have helped reduce the cost over 50 percent in the last several years.”

Satyapal came to Ohio because of the increasing deployment of fuel cell vehicles and the ramp-up of supporting infrastructure. 

Where Ohio's Going

SARTA, the regional transit system based in Canton is especially active in those areas. It now has the third largest fuel-cell bus fleet in the nation. And executive director Kirt Conrad says they’re building a hydrogen fueling center to service their fleet and anyone else who wants to use it, including a well-known delivery company.

“Eighteen of those will be UPS," Conrad says. "And that will be the largest deployment of such UPS vehicles in the world. Nine will be in Canton, and nine in Columbus.”

Andrew Thomas, executive-in-residence at the Levin College Energy Policy Center of Cleveland State University, is a geophysicist, an attorney with a specialty in energy law, and a former energy industry executive. He sees the rollout with SARTA as just the beginning.

“Fleets will be the first adopters on it, in the same way we did with compressed natural gas," Thomas says. "By having this hydrogen fueling station open to the public in Canton, Ohio—and we need more of these—as these come out and become available then we see the cars coming out as well. And people can actually buy fuel cell vehicles and operate them.”

As a matter of economic development and job creation, Conrad believes there is promise showing even in early fuel cell activity at organizations like SARTA

“And the one thing that’s interesting about that is that a lot of the outfitters and that stuff are here in Ohio," Conrad says. "So we’re trying to actually find Ohio companies to start doing some of this work for us.”

Potential Below Ground

Pat Valente, executive director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition, thinks there is another reason that Ohio has potential in the fuel cell industry. He points to a meeting with senior managers of Ballard Power Systems, Canada’s biggest fuel cell company.

“So I ran into them about three years ago, or four years ago, at a conference," Valente recalls. "And one of the people from there said: “Ohio... you have the best supply chain in the world.”

Ohio also sits atop a part of the Utica Shale that is rich in natural gas—the most commonly used source of hydrogen for fuel cells. It contains natural gas liquids too, used in manufacturing fuel cells.

Thomas says that can make this region the center for fuel cell technology. 

A Long Road

Not everyone is so optimistic. The auto industry has been very slow to adopt this technology.

Now, though, three of the world’s biggest car makers have fuel cell vehicles on the market: Toyota’s Mirai, Hyundai’s Tucson FCV,and Honda’s just-introduced Clarity.

Another traditional problem for fuel-cell vehicles has been “wear-out-time." They couldn’t match the typical 100,000-mile-plus lifespans of regular cars and trucks.

Valente says the new models feature new engineering, like advances in cell “stacking,” linking fuel cells together for more for power and durability.  

“Honda, they got 150,000 miles out of their stack," Valente says. "That’s pretty good. 'Hey, lookit, I’m Honda or Toyota:  I’m not putting junk on the rocket.' They’ve got too much to lose.”  

The U.S. Energy Department says a quarter of a billion dollars was spent or invested in fuel cell-related businesses in Ohio last year. That puts the state in the top 10 when it comes to fuel cell production - and number one when it comes to making parts for fuel cells.