Fuel cell technology proves value in hurricane relief efforts

Fuel cell technology proves value in hurricane relief efforts
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Congress, like most Americans, may not be fully aware of a growing energy source powering industry today, which explains why fuel cell technology isn’t being treated fairly. While it’s largely out of public view, it was one of the unsung heroes in this year’s hurricane disasters. 

When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in September, one of Walmart’s distribution centers lost its supply of electricity. Fortunately, its fleet of warehouse forklifts were powered by hydrogen fuel cells.


If these trucks had run on traditional lead-acid battery power, the generators would not have been able keep up with the needs, and the fleet would have quickly run out of power.


When Hurricane Harvey flooded the Houston area, outdoor hydrogen pads were submerged. Redundant safety features nevertheless kept hydrogen continuously running to forklift truck operations around the clock.

The ability of hydrogen fuel cells to withstand these natural disasters ensured that the delivery of food, water and other supplies could continue to those in need. 

This success builds on a growing record of fuel cells enhancing consumer’s resilience to natural disasters. Stationary fuel cells have powered data centers, manufacturers, hospitals and utility customers through everything from a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in California to Super Storm Sandy.

Following Sandy, more and more companies and cities have been utilizing fuel cells to power microgrids for critical infrastructure. The City of Hartford now powers an emergency shelter, supermarket and gas station in the center of the city with fuel cells.

Now, that the next time a storm knocks out the grid, the city can provide shelter, fuel and food to displaced residents.

What makes fuel cells so resilient and relatively immune to the power interruptions that come with major storms and natural disasters is the fact that they generate electricity on site. The zero-emission process yields only water, producing electricity without any air pollutants.

A major advantage over traditional lead-acid batteries is that they can refuel much faster and their efficiency allows them to run much longer between charge-ups. 

It’s important that Congress recognize the critical role that fuel cell technology plays in producing clean and reliable energy. Congress fumbled the ball in December 2015 by extending investment tax credits to solar energy companies until 2024, while letting incentives for fuel cells lapse.

This short-sighted policy decision has unfairly punished fuel cells which are proving their value today and may well revolutionize the way American power is generated in the future. At this point, it doesn’t matter how it happened, it matters how to fix it.

The time has come for Congress to place fuel cell technology on an equal footing with solar energy rather than arbitrarily picking winners and losers. 

The timing is crucial for this nascent energy source because China has made dominating the industry a priority in its five-year plan. While America is currently the world leader, China's government is subsidizing nearly half of the funding needed for its manufacturers to build their own fuel cell industry.

The recent hurricanes devastating Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico should also give Congress a sense of urgency. Fuel cell-powered networks have proven invaluable in backing up communications systems used by first responders and emergency call operators.

Local fuel cell networks mean that hospitals will have electrical power even when disaster strikes and that refrigeration for blood and medical supplies will continue uninterrupted. In times of national emergency, fuel cells must be there to assure that critical facilities can continue and that supplies of gasoline and clean drinking water will not be cut off.

Congress has an obligation to embrace this resilient and reliable energy technology and place it on equal footing with other energy sources as part of our effort to advance an all-of-the-above energy strategy that delivers more American-made energy. 

The House is working to fix this with legislation, led by Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) that has over 116 co-sponsors. Now, the Senate needs to do the same in their tax reform legislation with Sen. Heller’s (R-Nev.) S.1409. We need to allow fuel cell energy to reach its full potential and help power America.

Ken Blackwell is former domestic policy advisor to the Trump transition team and a senior advisor to Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), an organization committed to reducing America's dependence on oil in order to improve U.S. national and economic security.