BUSINESS
01/28/2016 05:00 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

Automotive Industry Paving the Way for Hydrogen Fuel Adoption

Much has been made over the past two years regarding the potential for and adoption of hydrogen fuel technologies.  While the industrial sector is by far still the largest user of hydrogen fuel, it's the consumer space that is putting the topic of hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells on our radar.  Over the last few weeks, everything from hydrogen cars to hydrogen powered laptops has received significant media coverage.

Of all the industries garnering the most attention for hydrogen fuel use, it is the automotive sector generating a consistent and significant buzz among mainstream consumers.

Before we run through some of the major auto manufacturers pursuit of hydrogen fuel cell (FCV) technology that is quickly raising hydrogen's profile, let's consider that there are many known and working hydrogen fuel solutions available.

The reality is, the automotive industry is actually behind several sectors utilizing fuel cell technology.

Major well known brands including WalMart, Ace Hardware, FedEx, and others have established partnerships with Plug Power, Nuvera, Ballard, and other hydrogen fuel companies to bring hydrogen technology to power forklifts at warehouses and distribution facilities around the country.

The other major application is for backup power generation, as many companies turn to using fuel cells citing reduced energy costs, efficient energy management control, and establishing a reliable electricity supply.

This use for material handling equipment (MHEs) and power storage has resulted in industrial fuel cell use reaching over $2 billion in annual sales. This is quite a number, and also one reason among many to be bullish on hydrogen's future. These uses for hydrogen fuel have provided validity for the hydrogen market, with opportunities appearing seemingly endless.

That being said, it's the automotive industry bringing hydrogen fuel technology to the forefront of the mainstream energy discussion. The Toyota Mirai launched this past October, becoming the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) to reach the U.S. market, while the Hyundai Tucson FCV reached Korean consumers in 2013. Further automakers including Honda, Audi, and BMW have continued to make announcements surrounding product rollouts, miles per tank breakthroughs, projected sales, and more. Just two weeks ago, Toyota debuted its FCV Plus at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.

This appropriately brings me to my point. The automotive industry, while still in its infancy in terms of hydrogen fuel adoption -- continues to move the needle in the ongoing battles between those committed to hydrogen fuel technology, and those, including Tesla's Elon Musk, who believe it will fail.

The reason for this is simple. While more industrial applications such as MHEs and power storage increase sales and drive mass adoption, they are both aspects of business that most mainstream consumers either don't understand or don't care about. On the contrary, a hydrogen fueling station used by motorists to pump "next generation technology" into a new state of the art vehicle, is much simpler to identify with.

While forklifts moving big box retailer product or Apple using fuel-cell technology in conjunction with solar and other renewables aren't the most appealing visuals, they are currently reducing our carbon footprint while driving down energy costs. For the mainstream audience, this is crucial to understand when it comes to taking a side in the pro vs. con argument surrounding hydrogen.

For now, the auto industry will maintain its role as the face of hydrogen fuel development to the average American, including renewable enthusiasts and investors alike. Hydrogen companies need to create cost-effective and renewable solutions for production and storage. And automakers like Toyota, Hyundai, and others need to work toward offering more hydrogen vehicle choices. Then, consumers will begin to see themselves at hydrogen fueling stations ready to pump next-generation technology into their new state-of-the-art cars.