Chart of the day: Fuel cell industry profits

The hydrogen funding wave and the enormous potential of the hydrogen economy boosted the stock price of public fuel cell companies in 2020 — but not their profits.

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Canary Media is proud to bring you the recently updated list of profitable publicly traded fuel cell firms. Drumroll, please…

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The hydrogen funding wave and enormous potential of the hydrogen economy boosted the stock price of public fuel cell companies in 2020 — but not their profits. Take a look at the financial results of the public fuel cell firms over the last few years. It’s the same grim story: heavy losses and mostly slow growth.

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Ballard Power is in its 24th year as a profitless company. Plug Power managed to lose $561 million while posting negative revenue in 2020. (Plug Power is in the process of restating its 2018 to 2020 financials due to an error in classification.)

Matthew Klippenstein, a fifteen-year veteran of the hydrogen fuel cell sector, tells Canary Media, Profits remain elusive in the fuel cell sector, though some companies took advantage of the recent stock market frenzy to tap fresh capital. Plug Power, the largest pure-play fuel cell company by market capitalization, continues to report losses — key clients Amazon and Walmart aren’t known for vendor largesse — but [it] made key moves that will make the next four years more interesting than the last four.”

Plug Power was also invited to apply for a $520 million loan under the Department of Energy’s Title XVII loan guarantee program.

Klippenstein believes that fuel cells are scaling up exactly as solar and wind did in previous decades.

A brief rundown of fuel cell technology

Fuel cells electrochemically convert hydrogen and oxygen into direct-current electricity.

Fuel cells employ an assortment of electrolytes, catalysts and temperatures. But in almost all cases, the membranes are expensive to fabricate, and the technologies require precious metal catalysts (typically platinum or palladium) or high process temperatures. Input fuels range from natural gas to methanol to hydrogen. Ongoing research and development efforts, some led by the DOE, are underway to reduce the need for expensive metals and to improve the reliability and lifetime of the fuel cell stack.

Common technologies include proton-exchange membrane (PEM), solid oxide (SOFC), phosphoric acid (PAFC) and molten carbonate (MCFC). There are a number of other technologies, all adept at destroying investor capital. GE, GM, Hyundai, Honda, Johnson Matthey, Panasonic, Siemens, Samsung, LG, Sharp, Toshiba and Toyota have all invested in (and in many cases ultimately abandoned) fuel cell technology.

Bloom Energy, Doosan and FuelCell Energy build large stationary fuel cells, using SOFC, PAFC and MCFC technologies, respectively. Plug Power, on the other hand, targets its PEM fuel cell system at powering forklifts and other vehicles in the enormous materials handling market.

While Bloom’s and FuelCell Energy’s equipment runs on natural gas, Plug Power’s PEM fuels cells run on pure five nines” hydrogen and work most productively with a hydrogen infrastructure at the customer site. 

The U.S. Department of Energy continues to fund fuel cell development, most recently with $33 million to support hydrogen and fuel cell research and development, infrastructure supply-chain development and validation, and cost analysis activities.

Eric Wesoff is the managing editor of Canary Media. He's a prominent industry journalist, analyst, writer, consultant, speaker and expert witness in the renewable energy field.