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Q&A: Pat Valente talks about Ohio's fuel cell environment

Pat Valente, Executive Director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition. Photos Ben French
Pat Valente, Executive Director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition. Photos Ben French

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Ohio has become a top destination for the fuel cell industry. Both large and small manufacturers -- many in traditional "old" economy industries -- are getting ready for a future that depends less on fossil fuels and more on advanced and alternative energy technologies. Fuel cells, which use chemical reactions to harness hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, provide a combustion-free alternative without harmful emissions. The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition -- an organization that supports the growth of the industry in Ohio -- reports that an increasing number of companies of all sizes and shapes, both home-grown Ohio and out-of-state transplants, are calling Ohio home. hiVelocity caught up with Pat Valente, executive director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition, to ask about the state of the fuel cell industry in Ohio.

What are the advantages of fuel cells over other alternative energy sources?

One of the advantages is that fuel cells have multiple applications. When the sun goes down, when the wind's not blowing, fuel cells can supply power for everything from a laptop to stationary applications (for buildings). They are more efficient, and the discharges -- which in the case of a hydrogen fuel cell is water -- are pollution free.

The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition calls Ohio the top destination for the fuel cell industry. What do you mean by that?

Ohio has a competitive advantage. If you look at the U.S. overall and then look at Ohio, Ohio is one of the top three states that has the "big three" of what is needed: First, quality research capabilities within universities and organizations like Battelle and companies they work with. Our supply chain capabilities give us a competitive advantage over any state in the country. Companies that are making products for the aerospace or automotive industries, for example, can retrain workers to supply the fuel cell industry. And we have fuel cell integrators (companies that integrate fuel cells into other products) and assemblers here -- most states do not.

Can you give us an idea of the mix of companies participating in the Ohio fuel cell corridor? Are they home-grown startups, or are they migrating here from other states?

It's a combination of companies that have located here and those that started here. Rolls Royce, for example, set up its North American fuel cell headquarters here (in North Canton). There's definitely a mix between large and small companies. If you're in this space and an integrator, you're going to have to have deep pockets, especially in developing stationary power.

How has the industry grown in Ohio, and what is driving that growth?

The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition has 100 members, but there are probably double or triple that many Ohio companies involved in fuel cells. I'm constantly learning of companies I didn't know about. Over the past five years, the number of companies has probaby grown by 10 percent. We're transitioning now from commodity-based probucts -- for example, stamped parts that don't necessarily bring value to the technology -- to value-added products. And we're just starting to see products enter the marketplace. Ohio is fortunate to have both integrators (Rolls Royce Fuel Cells, TMI and others) and assemblers (Battelle and Energy Technologies), which sets us apart. Most states have no integrators and very few assemblers. One of the things that has really been a big help to the industry in Ohio is investment made through the Ohio Third Frontier. I don't know if we would have had the growth in Ohio that we've had without it.

What kind of advances have been made in the commercialization of fuel cells in the past couple of years?

There are three companies -- TMI/Lockheed, Battelle and Energy Tech -- in the genset area (an off-grid power source) with products that could replace the use of JP-8 jet fuel now being used by the military. There are a number of other companies in the supply chain that are marketing their products. And companies that are looking at how they can succeed in the marketplace using fuel cells instead of batteries. An example is lift trucks. Crown Equipment has teamed up with two or three different fuel cell manufacturers. Right now, most lift trucks are battery operated. They have to shift out the batteries to recharge. In five minutes, they can (refuel) a fuel cell, and the lift truck is up and on its way. If I'm Wal-Mart, or a grocery store and I really want to save money or be green, I think that's terrific. Battelle recently did a demonstration at Warner-Robins Air Force Base using the same principal for tugs. That's another application we're going to be seeing.

What are the biggest opportunities for fuel cell manufacturers in Ohio?

We've talked about some of them. I also think we're going to see fuel cells coming into the market as stationary power sources. Ballard (Power Systems) is using Ohio-made components for a 1.2 megawatt fuel cell demonstration system in Akron. That's enough to power 800 homes. The product is going into the market. Companies like TMI are showing some success too.

What are the biggest obstacles the industry faces right now?

One is that the U.S. government, by and large, has been investing primarily in battery storage. But we need a portfolio approach. If we don't keep investing in fuel cells from a federal level, we're going to lose that competitive advantage. The Department of Energy's budget for fuel cells was $200 million, then that amount was cut to $80 million. Thanks to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Sen. Sharrod Brown, who went to bat for fuel cells, the original amount has been almost completely restored.

What do we need to do to keep the ball rolling in Ohio?

We need to pass renewed funding for Third Frontier. Legislators need to know what we're doing in the state of Ohio and how important fuel cells are to the state and to economic development. We also need support fuel cells at the federal level.

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