With fuel cells being deployed for applications as diverse as residential power, off-grid mobile communications sites in Africa, low-carbon transportation, and electrical grid reliability, the shift from a sector centered on R&D to a fully commercialized fuel cell industry is well underway.
While profits at a company level remain elusive, a handful of industry players have taken the necessary first step of making a profit on each unit sold. Between 2008 and 2010, the fuel cell industry experienced a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of roughly 27% – lower than some industry commentators would have liked to see.
According to a recent report from Pike Research, however, global fuel cell industry revenue climbed sharply during that period, increasing from around $260 million in 2008 to nearly $670 million two years later – an increase of more than 250%.
Looking ahead, Pike Research forecasts that growth in the industry will accelerate rapidly beginning in 2012, with strong growth anticipated over the next six years. Global fuel cell revenue is expected to surpass $28 billion by 2017.
“Shipments continue to pick up speed thanks to the breadth of applications being targeted by vendors,” says research director Kerry-Ann Adamson. “Fuel cells are being recognized as a highly effective tool for deploying reliable, clean power for stationary, portable, and transport applications.”
While fuel cells for transportation applications have received the most attention from the media, the real driver of the industry is the stationary fuel cell sector. In 2010, fully 50% of all fuel cell systems shipped were for stationary applications. Certain big-ticket markets, such as residential, are already seeing shipments in the tens of thousands.
A number of early adopter sectors have emerged, including residential units (particularly in Japan), power for both grid-connected and off-grid mobile telecommunications base stations, and combined heat and power (CHP) plants for a variety of markets, including hospitals and hotels.
Portable fuel cells, meanwhile, have had their ups and downs, with a temporary spike in shipments created by the sale of 3,000 Toshiba Dynario external battery rechargers in 2009 followed by a sharp decline in total sales in 2010. Significant volumes for transportation fuel cells in car and buses are still several years away, as automakers gear up for fuel cell vehicle (FCV) launches in 2015. The fall-off in shipments for the portable sector led to a strong correction for the overall industry in 2010, as shipments essentially flatlined. That is expected to change, beginning next year.
While cars and buses will continue to dominate the headlines, applications such as remote monitoring, residential, and uninterruptible power supplies will continue to gain traction and grow.