With the transportation sector contributing more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of attention is focused on new sources of propulsion. The irrational exuberance reflected in Tesla’s stock price captures the combined effect of American enthusiasm for electric vehicles and our susceptibility to fabulous marketing.
Fuel cells can help address our climate problem, however, and the return of a fuel cell focus to Rochester is welcome. Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies recently spun off its Heavy Vehicle Business Unit. The new business, Hyzon Motors Inc., established its headquarters last year in Honeoye Falls at the former General Motors facility, shuttered in 2012. This week, it announced plans for a nearly $8 million expansion assisted by Empire State Development, Monroe County and Greater Rochester Enterprise.
In addition, Hyzon disclosed it had reached a definitive agreement with Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” public company (NASDAQ: DCRB), that will result in Hyzon becoming a publicly traded company valued at $2.7 billion. DCRB was formed with the specific purpose of forming a business combination with a venture focused on “developing and advancing a platform that decarbonizes the most carbon-intensive sectors.”
A fuel cell creates electricity through a battery-like chemical process involving hydrogen and oxygen. Its “tailpipe emission”? Water!
There is, of course, no free lunch. Hydrogen is pretty much everywhere but doesn’t live alone—and it takes energy to extract it from sources like natural gas or, yes, from water, which brings us back to needing better sources of electric generation.
This is a problem for all electric vehicles. The electrons that power your Tesla or Volt are not spontaneously generated by the plug in your garage or the charging station. They come from the power plants that narrowly rank second as a source of greenhouse gases. (Transportation’s global greenhouse gas contribution is half that of the U.S., with fossil fuel power generation in China as a major contributor).
Access to hydrogen is key to expanding the use of fuel cells. In a recent interview, Hyzon CEO Craig Knight notes that the variety of sources of hydrogen makes the technology adaptable to local conditions. “You can make it from all sorts of things,” he says. “If you have really cheap solar, you can make hydrogen. If you have geothermal, you can use that. If you have access to surplus hydropower, as in Tasmania, the hydrogen can be very cheap.”
Knight is Australian—Hyzon has been selling vehicles in Australia and New Zealand.
The focus of the new venture is on heavy transport. Horizon’s Heavy Vehicle Business Unit delivered 500 commercial vehicles in 2019 and 2020. Plans for the Rochester facility include R&D and production of the company’s 500-hp modules.
The company has a partnership with Fontaine Modifications, a company specializing in adapting heavy vehicles, presumably incorporating the Hyzon power plant in trucks built by other manufacturers.
There’s another Rochester connection here: Horizon grew out of a 1990s Shanghai- and Netherlands-based innovation team inside Eastman Chemical, which was itself spun off from Eastman Kodak in 1994.
New York has awarded the firm $1.6 million in Excelsior Tax Credits. Hyzon projects employment of 100 at its 78,000-square-foot Honeoye Falls facility. Construction at the renovated facility is expected to be completed in April.
The Hyzon news comes on the heels of an announced new Plug Power Innovation Center. Plug Power’s focus has been stationary fuel cell applications but has also entered the on-road electric vehicle market.
Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.