Are large stationary fuel cells the future of electricity production? During today's OnPoint, Dan Brdar, the CEO of FuelCell Energy, discusses the growth potential for the stationary fuel cell market. He explains how stationary fuel cell technology differs from fuel cells in automobiles. Brdar also talks about fuel cell technology's role in a federal renewable electricity standard.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Dan Brdar, CEO of FuelCell Energy. Dan, thanks coming on the show.
Dan Brdar: Thanks for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: Dan, we've heard about fuel cells used in vehicles, but your company focuses on large stationary fuel cells which can produce electricity and heat. What's unique about what your company is doing and your specific technology?
Dan Brdar: Well, we're the only company in the marketplace that is producing commercially available, megawatt-class fuel cells. So we're addressing a market segment that's largely utility, commercial, and industrial scale that is really untapped and we're the first company to really be doing so in any significant scale at all.
Monica Trauzzi: So, in terms of comparing the technologies, is this similar to what we see in fuel cell vehicles?
Dan Brdar: Very different actually. Fuel cells for vehicles tend to be a low-temperature technology that is relatively low in efficiency. Our product is based on the carboning technology, which is high temperature and as a result it's also very high efficiency. In fact, our products have the highest electrical efficiency of anything in their size range.
Monica Trauzzi: So, what applications are these power plants suitable for?
Dan Brdar: Great for manufacturing facilities, hotels, hospitals, even utility scale applications. They're really for customers who want to generate their own electricity, do it on a continuous basis, and in many cases use the waste heat from the fuel cell also to either make steam or to drive absorption chilling.
Monica Trauzzi: Fuel cells have sort of been touted as the solution for our energy problems, but they come with their own set of issues, including some cost issues. Have they been oversold or will they have the wide reach in our marketplace?
Dan Brdar: Well, I think you really need to look at two different segments. I think fuel cells for transportation has some very big challenges, both from a cost standpoint, durability standpoint. But fuel cells for stationary power, in our company in particular, we actually are putting product into the marketplace today. We've cut our product costs by over 60 percent the last several years. We're leveraging the existing infrastructure. We'll run on biogas, we'll run on natural gas, so we don't need the development of a hydrogen infrastructure like you would with the transportation sector. So, for us really now it's a matter of continuing to get the awareness out there for customers about the availability of the product and get them to understand that we do have attractive economics to offer today and keep growing.
Monica Trauzzi: How have you seen the market change over the last 10 years?
Dan Brdar: It's been pretty significant. You know, originally when we work for starting to put our products out it was very difficult to actually reach those first customers. A good example was waste water treatment. Our first sale there took a long time, over two years. Now, when we go talk to waste water treatment customers, particularly in target markets for us like California, they're already very aware of us. They've shared their experiences with other customers in that space. They've probably seen some of our units at local municipalities. So the awareness has been growing considerably and that's helping drive our order flow.
Monica Trauzzi: So, where do you see the biggest opportunities for growth looking forward?
Dan Brdar: There's a couple. One is just biogas in general. We're seeing an increasing use of anaerobic digesters, food and beverage processors, wastewater treatment facilities. Those technologies create a waste gas that is a great fuel for our fuel cell. The other big growth area for us is on the utility scale. We're only just now doing our first utility scale projects and as the utilities become more comfortable with the technology they see how it helps them solve load congestion problems. They see where it starts to fit into the smart grid applications. It represents an area of considerable growth for us.
Monica Trauzzi: So, in terms of a renewable electricity standard, which we're hearing a lot of talk about on the Hill right now, how would this technology fit into that or would it?
Dan Brdar: Well, if it is a fuel cell running on a biogas it's renewable by anybody's definition. What we do see are some things like Senator Graham's bill where they're looking at a clean energy standard, where they're really looking at what is the portfolio of technologies that we're going to rely on. One of those is really based on how we're going to use natural gas since it's turning out to be one of our most abundant resources here domestically. Fuel cells running on natural gas would be a great solution to help the country meet clean energy standards and do it in a way that cost effective too.
Monica Trauzzi: What's your take on the Obama administration's support level for fuel cell technology?
Dan Brdar: It's been very good. We're seeing money both in the stimulus bill and also in the core R&D areas like the Department of Energy's budget. A lot of it is really aimed at some longer-term applications. We don't see a lot of funding towards some of the things that we're doing in the commercial side of the business, but that's just part of the natural evolution of the way their programs are funded.
Monica Trauzzi: How dependent are you on funding from the federal government?
Dan Brdar: Right now, the R&D side, where we actually rely on the federal government is probably maybe 15 percent of our revenues. Most of our revenues today really come from commercial sale of the products. But it's an important part for us long-term because the government tends to invest in R&D programs that are really outside the timeline of what most businesses are willing to do in the current environment. So, it's important for us from an investment in future products.
Monica Trauzzi: Any plans to expand internationally or is this going to be just U.S. based?
Dan Brdar: No, actually our largest market right now is in Asia. We are in an interesting position that fuel cell energy has a technology that was developed with U.S. taxpayer dollars. It's made here in the U.S. and 90 percent of what we're making today is being shipped to Asia. A little different than what you see in a lot of other businesses.
Monica Trauzzi: That's very interesting. All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show.
Dan Brdar: Thank you.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
[End of Audio]