Former Ballard CEO Dennis Campbell explains fuel cell to China Premier Hu Jintao in 2005.
Ballard: Once and Future (Fuel Cell) King
By Bill Moore
Ballard Power Systems invented the PEM fuel cell more than two decades ago, applying the technology to power some of the world's first hydrogen-powered buses. For a brief period of time, its stock price soared on the promise of fuel cell cars, only to crash as the technology collided with reality. Now, things are again looking up, according to director of investor relations, Guy McAree.
In the interest of full disclosure, I made money on Ballard Power Systems. I bought something like 100 shares for around $20 back around 2000 and a few months later sold them when they hit around $60. It was smartest -- and only profitable -- trade I've ever made.
That was more than a decade ago and I've pretty much stayed out of the market with the exception of another Canadian stock that's, frankly, been a dog. Unfortunately for investors, the story's been kinda the same with BLDP, its stock hovering for more than a decade in the $2 range, a victim more of the reality of the technology than any failings of management or its engineers, who according to Guy McAree have generated a portfolio of more than 2000 patents on its PEM fuel cell technology.
Polymer or Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells are seen as the most promising fuel cell technology among a half-dozen others, including Molten Carbonate and Solid Oxide, for automotive applications. Its promise, hyped by the media back in 2000, drove BLDP's stock price to triple its then historic value, peaking at over $100 a share in February 2000, only to crash in October. PEM operates at lower temperatures, making it more suitable for mobile applications. Experimental Ballard stacks, essentially layers of specially formulated plastic film packed together like sliced loafs of bread, powered the world's first hydrogen fuel cell buses in both Europe and North America. Carmakers, anxious to come up with an alternative to the limits imposed by battery technology of the time, signed agreements with Ballard to provide PEM fuel cells for their test cars. It was all very exciting and promising…
Then reality set in. The stacks had short shelf lives. Hydrogen was damn hard and dangerous to work with. Storing it was problematic. A prototype fuel cell car easily cost a couple million dollars.
To its credit and maybe at the expense of its stock price, Ballard engineers and management have soldiered on, gradually solving the membrane degradation issue, the freezing water problem, the relatively long stack start-up time, and most importantly, the cost issues. And they're not alone. Today, its possible for you as a consumer to lease, at least in California, a fuel cell car from Toyota (Mirai) and Honda (Clarity). Mercedes and Hyundai also have hydrogen FCEVs on the road. And instead of costing a $1 million, they carry sticker prices closer to luxury ICE-age models: around $60K.
In this 30-minute interview, EV World talks with McAree, Ballard's director of investor relations, catching up on where the company is today and where it sees itself in the future. Is it time to maybe take advantage of its cheap stock price?
Originally published: 22 Aug 2016
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