The UPS industry was supposed to be the fourth pillar of the German National Innovation Program Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NIP). Instead, the niche market considered to be an innovative force in the industry has yet to offer more than a glimpse into its possibilities. Industry network Clean Power Net (CPN) has tried to instill confidence by posting encouraging news articles, but some market actors are still waiting on the right environment that can deliver more steam for market development and boost product sales. Largely not in dispute, however, is the notion that the market offers great potential for growth.
Clean Power Net was founded in 2010 to bring together a variety of companies from the uninterruptible power supply market (UPS or what used to be called “early markets”). On March 15, the network’s 21 companies and R&D organizations met in Berlin for the organization’s fifth general assembly, entitled “Market for Fuel Cells Continues to Grow.” CPN said that not only were successful reference projects paving the way for the fuel cell to enter new markets, but that there was also increasing demand for fuel cell solutions in emergency power supply and that many customers had already been using fuel cells to displace diesel units in UPS applications. But sustainable, mass-market adoption of the technology is still not in sight.
Fuel cells for government radio
And this although the outlook is promising. One application where fuel cells are becoming increasingly popular as emergency power supply is digital police radio. First field tests at government agencies and organizations tasked with providing security (in short: BOS) were completed successfully in March. Henrik Colell, CTO of Heliocentris Energy Solutions and spokesperson of Clean Power Net since its foundation, was pleased to announce that “the BOS Brandenburg showcase has thrust our entire network into the limelight.”
It was a promising sign for Colell: “We have managed to …
Proton, in turn, is expanding into other European countries and regions, from Switzerland to the Orkney Islands (see Eco-Power for Orkney Islands).
Export fund with EUR 350 million budget
Colell, however, also told H2-international that despite their best efforts, the CPN members “have not been able to implement a domestic market deployment program for UPS systems.” NIP 2.0 is said to subsidize demonstration projects and R&D too, in order to improve system performance and cut more costs. But to further support business activities abroad to the best of one’s capabilities, there are discussions about some kind of fund-based measure to strengthen the global market position of German fuel cell exports (see Bonhoff interview).
Share price tumbles
Even without CPN’s start-up troubles, some network members – businesses with a long history among them, such as Heliocentris and SFC – struggle with keeping their investors committed. Both companies have been part of the fuel cell business since the beginning of fuel cell development at the end of the last century. But they risk trying their financial backers’ patience, as the route to commercialization is a long and winding road. SFC Energy’s shares have been at the same low level for seven years, which should be noted is 80 percent below the original issue price from 2006. Even the last increase in capital in mid-August 2016 hasn’t done much to change the situation (gross proceeds: around EUR 1.5 million).
SFC may regularly report the conclusion of new multi-million euro contracts, but the stock price just wouldn’t go above EUR 7 over the past years. That would explain the rather cautious attitude among many of the company’s investors. Another issue is that since 2015, the company has had to fight off a competitor offering similar products on a market that is still quite small: Keymile based in Lower Saxony has recently joined forces with Danish fuel cell manufacturer IRD to integrate the DMFC generator model 800 into its own UPS systems. The Hanover trade show in 2016 was the first event at which the company presented its units to the public. They are methanol-based just like SFC’s. And like the business from Brunnthal, the Hanover competition targets air traffic, pipeline and border control systems, which need to stay online even during power outages or work as true off-grid solutions.
Heliocentris Energy Solutions, which has been headquartered in Berlin-Adlershof since 1995, is not much better off. The company also went public in 2006, but its share price did not experience a dramatic drop until the end of last year. Here too, shares were quoted 80% (lately even 90%) below their issue price, down from a +25% high in summer two years ago and half a year after the takeover of FutureE Fuel Cell Solutions (for more information, see Heliocentris – Profile of a Listed Fuel Cell Company and Heliocentris Files for Bankruptcy).
NOW study: Fuel cell alternative with appeal
A promising study has recently been conducted by David Hart and Franz Lehner from E4tech on behalf of NOW. After examining the European market for emergency power supply of up to 100 kW of capacity, the authors concluded: “The use of fuel cells instead of conventional emergency power systems in a variety of pilot projects has helped showcase the benefits of the new technology and present it as a mature alternative with operational advantages. […] US tax incentives for fuel cell systems have already turned these units into an intriguing alternative to diesel generators. […] Complete fuel cell systems of up to around 10 kW of capacity are expected to have the best chance of competing with conventional units on today’s market.”
The analysis went on to say that …