Fuel cell advocates worry about being left out of the state’s transition to a clean-energy future.
In a joint hearing before two legislative committees, fuel cell proponents yesterday touted their benefits, a way to curb greenhouse gas emissions while powering microgrids, the state’s ports, and eventually consumers’ cars.
The question yet to be answered is can the state afford to both fund the electrification of the transportation sector and to build the infrastructure for a hydrogen-fueled economy.
The issue is coming to the fore as New Jersey is taking aggressive steps to promote the use of electric cars, a step viewed crucial to achieving the state’s aggressive goals to reduce emissions contributing to climate change.
For the most part, fuel cell-powered vehicles have been left out of that discussion, although state environmental officials are talking about allocating some funds to encourage use of that technology, particularly in heavily polluted urban communities.
Run on hydrogen, fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. The problem is most of the hydrogen to produce that energy comes from natural gas, a process that undermines goals to reduce carbon pollution.
Fuel cells have many advantages — they’re more efficient than conventional and electric-powered vehicles, quicker to refuel than electric vehicles, and with fewer moving parts, probably less liable to break down.
But they are also expensive and lack a hydrogen infrastructure to supply the fuel to customers, particularly the motoring public. The cost of building a single fueling station for fuel cells runs into millions of dollars, according to Peggy Hanna, an assistant director of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Nevertheless, fuel cells have been around for decades. There are now hydrogen-powered forklifts moving goods around Amazon warehouses at two locations in New Jersey, according to Gerry Conway, general counsel for Plug Power, a New York-based manufacturer of fuel-cells.
“They do it because they save money. They increase productivity and efficiency of their operations,’’ said Conway. His company has 21,000 forklifts operating nationwide, including 900 in New Jersey.
Indeed, a couple of Princeton chemistry professors told legislators that in the short term, one of the best uses of fuel cells is delivering a stationary source of power to data centers, as a backup source of electricity to microgrids and to equipment handling cargo at ports and warehouses.
“Fuel cells are a source of clean and efficient power that has the potential to reduce emissions,’’ said Jay Benziger, a professor of chemistry at Princeton University.
But auto manufacturers argue there also is a place for fuel cells in transitioning from conventional gas-powered vehicles.
“With the proper hydrogen fueling network, the transition is seamless,’’ said Steve Center, a vice president at American Honda, which is producing the Clarity, a fuel-cell vehicle.
In New Jersey, two hydrogen fueling stations are now going through the permitting process — in Lodi and Whippany, added Edmund Young, representing Toyota. The committee was urged to look at policies that will allow the state to scale up markets for the vehicles.
“Fuel cell vehicles are a great option to achieve the carbon reduction goals that we all have signed onto,’’ Center told the committee.
Legislators appear inclined to move in that direction.
“Hydrogen and fuel cell technology is a nearly untapped alternative energy resource with both environmental and economic benefits for the state,’’ said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, the chairman of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
“It’s now up to us to come up with legislation that makes sense for the people of New Jersey,’’ agreed Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, the chairman of the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.