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The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Updated: Feb 26

Toyota recently announced the release of a 50kW fuel cell for lift trucks, agriculture machinery, and construction equipment. Toyota believes these markets want fuel cells to power their equipment, but Toyota is dead wrong. I am not saying they should not build this fuel cell. Toyota makes great products and this assuredly meets Toyota’s high standards. What I am saying is that these industries don’t want a fuel cell, they want a better way to do business.

All too often manufacturers start with an objective of solving customer problems, but end up with a product that fits their agenda. They take the path of least resistance and design something that they can build easily, affordably, and consistently. These manufacturers leave the ancillary parts to someone else. That approach will work in an established industry where there are many suppliers and alternatives. However, the hydrogen economy is in its infancy, and very few entities have the know-how to piece together individual parts into a complex structure. Unless someone takes the lead and provides all aspects of the system, no one will buy the product.

This is a theme I see in the hydrogen industry. Many companies want to provide a piece of the puzzle without considering the entire solution. Some design an electrolyzer stack and leave the balance of plant to someone else. Others engineer a fuel cell for a single application, like the Toyota fuel cell, without taking into account all the other equipment working around it at the customer site.

A 50kW fuel cell is a worthless component that on its own. A complete solution seamlessly integrates into a customer’s fleet and eliminates redundancies like multiple power methods (hydrogen and batteries). A company will not put fuel cells in half their lift truck fleet and leave the other half using batteries. That runs contrary to the business case for using fuel cells in the first place.

A complete solution incorporates a refueling system, including a hydrogen supply that is reliable, with stable prices. Customers need service and maintenance. Most importantly, the end users cannot have any interruption in their business, so all parts of the system must work together flawlessly.

On-road trucking is another example. Long haul and heavy-duty trucking are a niche market for fuel cells. Fuel cells allow for the benefits of an electric engine without the drawbacks of batteries (long charge times, reduced range, limited cargo space). Unfortunately, fuel cell truck manufacturers often promote the vehicles without a coherent plan on how to supply the hydrogen and refueling stations, which leaves the customer in the position of procuring the refueling station and fuel from a third party.

End users are not concerned with the details of the individual components. They will do their due diligence on the overall system and design, secure the required approvals from the safety team, and make sure the local jurisdiction approves the project, but they rarely micromanage the selection of specific equipment used on the project. All that matters is creating a better way to operate in a safe and cost-effective manner that helps meet corporate goals. More manufacturers need to understand this perspective for the entire industry to flourish.

The hydrogen industry is going through an incredible evolution as an important part of the great energy transformation. I am excited and skeptical of what will happen with the programs like the Hydrogen Hubs in the US or Hydrogen HeadStart in Australia. These programs provide funding to kick start the hydrogen economy. Will we end up with well-organized and executed plans that solve problems with hydrogen as the energy source that can be replicated elsewhere, or will we have a multiple, stand-alone, components that don’t work together in a very expensive experiment? The hydrogen industry needs to understand the importance of providing a complete solution if fuel cell adoption is going to reach its full potential.

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