Fuel Cell Energy Hopes Deflate

As of March 10, the average price of gasoline was hovering at around $3.23 per gallon in the United States, up 67% on a year- over-year basis, according to the Energy Information Administration. Now, if you live in California, the weather might be nicer, but you are also paying an average of about $3.54 per gallon, some 10% higher than the national average, and up 47% year-over-year. In Maui, gasoline is at a staggering $4.00 a gallon, which makes it the highest in the U.S.

Given the high cost to drive, consumers will feel the pinch and this could impact shopping (and thus retailers).

The reality is that there needs to be a viable alternative to fossil fuel, something that has been in discussion for over a decade — so far, nothing significant has developed. A decade ago, there was a growing belief that the future of the auto industry was going to shift from fossil-fuel-burning vehicles to those that run on hydrogen fuel cell technology. Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere was polluting our air and causing a greenhouse-like atmosphere to form around the Earth, thereby increasing global warming and killing our air quality. Moreover, there was an effort in theory to want to reduce our dependence on oil. Can you imagine if it played out according to the plan given the current high oil prices?

Governments around the world were behind the concept. The U.S. government firmly put its support behind the development of fuel cell technology for vehicles. In the U.S., General Motors Corporation (NYSE/GM), Ford Motor Company (NYSE/F) and DaimlerAG (NYSE/DAI) threw research capital into fuel cell development and forming alliances.

Key fuel cell companies such as FuelCell Energy, Inc. (NASDAQ/FCEL) and Ballard Power Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ/BLDP) were the rage on the Street, as investors were convinced that fuel cells would soon be running vehicles worldwide.

Ballard, the market leader, traded at a high of $132.00 in March 2000, as investors could not get enough of the stock. Unfortunately, things did not unfold as Ballard had planned, as fuel cell technology remains at this time a concept that cannot seem to catch. Fuel cells technology exists and has been tested to success in buses, but Ballard has not yet developed a fuel cell that is small and cost effective enough to become mainstream. The stock is down over 90% to the current $4.00-$5.00 range. FuelCell also traded at about $50.00 in 2000, but is now around $6.00.

So is there any hope? The answer is yes, but the odds for success are low in the short term. The reality is that the fuel cell development sector is continuing to lose vast amounts of money and, unless there is a renewed concerted effort to fund these companies, it may just become a dead technology that held promise.

Losses in the fuel cell industry in North America are massive. Revenues are minimal and non-material. The trend does not look encouraging. We are seeing a rise in hybrid cars that run on both gasoline and electricity.

As an investment, the potential of fuel cell stocks is what I consider a long shot, unless the government and automakers put more capital towards making a fuel cell that can work in everyday vehicles. Whether this will happen is unknown, but what I know is that it is purely a gamble. I believe there are much better places to invest your hard-earned capital.