US must defend fuel cell tech from Chinese pilfering

US must defend fuel cell tech from Chinese pilfering
© Getty Images

Thanks to the innovative American spirit, the United States is unquestionably the world leader when it comes to the development of an emerging, highly promising source of energy: fuel cells. But our position of global dominance is already in jeopardy due to the threat of hacking from China.

Fuel cell technology converts the chemical energy in hydrogen or natural gas into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen. Fuel cells are cyber secure and generate energy on-site, thereby minimizing the risks of power outages from hurricanes and other storms.

China has recognized the value of fuel cell energy and is doing everything it can to obtain the technology and displace America as the leader in fuel cell manufacturing. Acquiring fuel cell technology is part of China’s five-year plan and the country is aggressively working to reach that goal. Since they haven’t yet been successful in developing it on their own, their investors are vigorously working to purchase it. In fact, China offers a whopping 50 percent subsidy for certain fuel cell applications. And then there’s the darker current that runs below the surface. As former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon noted on 60 Minutes, “China is at economic war with us.” Without mincing words, he said, “China is, through forced technology transfer and through stealing our technology … cutting out the beating heart of American innovation.”


China’s intellectual property theft, which involves industries from biotechnology to communications to steel manufacturers and more, cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year. It should come as no surprise that the Red Dragon is looking at the nascent American fuel cell industry. Not only does fuel cell technology show strong promise as a clean and reliable power source, it also has enormous potential to bolster our national energy security.


The zero-emission process yields only water, thus providing an energy source free of smog-creating air pollutants. The fuel cells refuel much faster than traditional lead-acid batteries and their efficiency allows them to run much longer between charge-ups than traditional batteries.

Fuel cell technology is already in use - deployed very successfully in warehouse fork lifts, replacing less efficient battery-operated fork lifts. Toyota has begun testing the technology in heavy-load trucks. In the coming years, fuel cell energy may bring new efficiencies and cleaner air to heavily industrialized areas. But right now it’s proving its value as a national energy security asset. Natural disasters can disrupt communications to the tune of $150 billion in economic losses annually, but fuel cell-powered networks are increasingly backing up not only businesses, but communications systems used by first responders and emergency call operators. Local fuel cell networks are assuring that electrical power will continue in emergency rooms and pharmacy refrigerators, data centers and gas stations in times of emergency.

The resilient and clean energy form has the added benefit of employing 10,000 American workers with reasonable growth projections of another 20,000 jobs in just five years’ time.

Despite our best diplomatic and cybersecurity efforts, Chinese hackers are unlikely to back off from preying upon American businesses anytime soon. But by failing to extend the investment tax credit (ITC) in 2015, Congress unwittingly served China's interests. There is still an opportunity for Congress to protect this growing industry.

The beleaguered nuclear industry is also vital to our national energy security, and — as with the ITC — has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate to adjust its production tax credit (PTC). It’s a national security win-win to put the PTC with the ITC — while including fuel cell energy and would significantly increase chances of Congressional approval and would help assure our energy security while forming a hedge against unfair Chinese competition. Bannon remarked that “a hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember — what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination.” Congress must take a step toward that legacy now. 

Colin Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring USA, Inc., a nonprofit public policy organization. Hanna served as a commissioner in Chester County, Penn. from 1995-2003.