• Climate hub
  • 16 Mar 2022
  • 5 min read

Making sense of fuel cells for NZ

Dr Michaela Kendall, co-founder and CEO of fuel cell company Adelan Ltd, talks to Genesis Energy about the breakthrough hydrogen economy and the future of fuel cells in New Zealand.

By David Appleyard

Dr Michaela Kendall, CEO Adelan
Dr Michaela Kendall, CEO Adelan

Could hydrogen fuel cells help New Zealand get on the fast-track to achieving our carbon goals? Hydrogen fuel cells are an alternative to batteries in EVs. There are several advantages to hydrogen fuel cells: they don’t need charging, they don’t become degraded, and their only by-product is water. They’re more efficient than other energy sources – cars using hydrogen fuel cells can travel further than battery-powered EVs and can be refuelled more quickly.

But there are disadvantages, too. Hydrogen is difficult to store and transport, it’s expensive to produce, and it needs to be produced zero-carbon way or it’s still relying on fossil fuels. The upfront costs of establishing it as a useful everyday energy source are pretty high.

However, if we could overcome some of those hurdles, hydrogen fuel cells could be a major tool in global efforts to lower our carbon emissions. 

New Zealand is well suited for hydrogen fuel cells

Dr Michaela Kendall is the co-founder and CEO of Adelan, a UK-based company which produces hydrogen fuel cells. She believes New Zealand is uniquely suited to scaling up hydrogen fuel cell usage, which can power a wide range of vehicles and industrial processes.

I think New Zealand is an ideal location for accelerated development of the fuel cell market, as it is the kind of place where distributed energy works well,” says Kendall. To make fuel cells as low-carbon as possible, the hydrogen they use needs to be produced using renewable energy, and New Zealand is good at harnessing hydro and solar power. If we can generate excess renewable energy, then store it in hydrogen fuel cells, that “can compensate for the intermittency of wind and solar”, Kendall explains.

Interview with Dr Michaela Kendall, CEO Adelan

Hydrogen is ideal for decarbonising big business

While hydrogen-powered personal transport would have some major advantages, it’s in the commercial sector where it could make the biggest impact.

For businesses and commerce, fuel cells offer significant advantages in all sorts of applications. If we consider the construction sector, for example, then it is easy to see fuel cells displacing diesel,” Kendall says. “That all makes a lot of sense when we think about corporate social responsibility and the big role corporate entities can play in effecting change.

Heavy industries are the hard-to-reach areas of decarbonisation and there really aren’t that many options apart from hydrogen. You have an immediate advantage in terms of its use as a combustible gas and there are increasingly creative ways of looking at generating hydrogen from renewables. I think once those fuels have been produced at scale then it's very possible to see a switch to using hydrogen. New Zealand businesses are potentially a big engine for change.

Overcoming the hurdles

New energy technologies are usually expensive to start with, then the costs fall as the technology becomes more widespread and scales up. We’ve seen that happen with EVs, and even more dramatically with solar power. Hydrogen faces the same problem – it needs to become more widely used to make it more affordable.

I think people will understand that as the hydrogen economy scales it will get cheaper,” Kendall says, “As the scale rises, prices plummet and that unlocks new markets. We don’t really know where fuel cells will go at the moment because they haven’t hit their lowest price. At scale the economics are very clear and you can roll them out to all sorts of applications.

There are other barriers too: “economic, political and in some cases social barriers to achieving a sustainable energy system so we need to remove those as fast as possible to make the clean choice easier. Consumer pressure is a very powerful way of making that happen but businesses, industry, policymakers, households and individuals all have a part to play in creating our joint sustainable future."

Kendall would like to see governments compensating or rewarding people for reducing carbon, and making certain that all our regulations are set up to encourage lower carbon usage.

An introduction to Fuel Cells

Rapid change is on the way

The hydrogen economy is growing fast and Kendall predicts rapid changes over the next few years. Even now, with all the work that’s been done, the full impact of hydrogen fuel cells won’t be clear until it gets a better foothold in our energy sector.

That’s the exciting bit for a country like New Zealand. I think consumers and businesses will be really creative finding uses for them. We can’t yet conceive of the applications, but we do know that they will be powered with clean energy and that is really the key to our future.

Fuel cells and hydrogen are ultimately about improving people’s lives, adds Kendall. They’re not new technologies, but we’re only now starting to appreciate all their advantage:

Fuel cells and hydrogen don’t have the drawbacks of other forms of energy generation. We don’t need to generate pollution when we generate energy today, so we shouldn’t. When I think about the future of fuel cells and hydrogen, that’s what I am really looking forward to.

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