How Close Are We to a Fuel Cell Future?

With energy costs going up, there’s a lot of talk in auto circles about hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. There’s no question that a hydrogen-power car would eliminate a lot of pollution, but the fact is that this technology is a long way away. We are all going to feel a lot more pain at the pump for many years to come.

Toyota is saying that a $50,000 fuel cell car is 10 years away. This is a lofty goal, and one that won’t be possible in volume production due to a lack of infrastructure.

Ballard Power Systems is a company that’s working with Ford and Daimler Chrysler, but it’s in terrible financial condition. As a sort of bellwether company in fuel cell development, its depleting financial resources make it unlikely that it will be able to bring to market a workable fuel cell for vehicles. This stock, which was once trading for over $125 per share, is now trading for under $5 a share. The company is burning through piles of cash, but, with its low stock price, further financings may seem difficult.

The alternative energy market is an investment theme that I really believe in, but my enthusiasm for fuel cell development from the investors’ perspective is very low. The next decade in vehicle production is likely to only see further enhancements to hybrid vehicles. This technology, which is a hot seller for Toyota and Honda, is still relatively unproven. When owners of Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles have to replace their car batteries, they will be in for the shock of a lifetime–these things are really, really expensive.

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Technological development in the auto market moves quite slowly. Hybrid vehicles are only at the beginning of their popularity.

So the whole fuel cell, hydrogen hype seems at least two decades away. If you’re thinking about investing in fuel cells, you’d better hold off. You’ll be much better off investing in solar power development than in hydrogen power.