General Motors is closing its Honeoye Falls fuel cell research facility. The plant has 350 workers. GM says it’s consolidating operations at its fuel cell research lab in Michigan to “capitalize on synergies.”
This is bad news on a number fronts. It’s personally devastating for those workers, even though many have been offered jobs in Michigan. Those are highly-paid jobs, exactly the type of jobs we need to attract to this area. A number of local, state and federal representatives have secured tax dollars to support the facility. The local autoworkers union has been desperate for any research work to be translated into manufacturing jobs at GM’s plant on Lexington Ave. Finally, the move is a blow to Rochester’s efforts to become a fuel cell hub.
In addition to GM, Delphi has a research facility in the area. Rochester Institute of Technology has a program dedicate to fuel cell research and has worked with GM. Greater Rochester Enterprise lists several companies that make fuel cell components. (Interesting how GRE scrubbed the Honeoye Falls plant from the website so fast.)
Did anyone see this coming and could this mean GM is rethinking its commitment to fuel cells? While foreign automakers are going gangbusters on fuel cells lately, GM appears to be taking a back seat:
Trying to make hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles affordable remains “a very challenging business case going forward,” says Charlie Freese, director of GM’s global fuel-cell efforts.
Plus, he points out, there still are few fueling stations. Even in hydrogen-promoting California, the Hydrogen Highway never really got built. You “can’t put volumes of cars out there when you have no way to fuel them,” Freese says.
Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity to power cars. They don’t take as long to charge and give off steam instead of gasoline fumes.
A website that closely follows GM clean energy news asked company officials about the status of the fuel cell program. This report is from August and it uses Honeoye Falls as an example of GM’s commitment:
As for fuel cells, GM’s Honeoye Falls Fuel Cell Facility in Honeoye Falls, NY is an epicenter for GM’s move toward overcoming the chicken and egg issues involving FCVs (fuel cell vehicles).
“Given the depth and breath of GM, these cars were designed and developed globally,” said Fox. “Honeoye Falls was instrumental in the development of the fuel cell system that went into the Project Driveway cars.”
We’re presuming Honeoye Falls’ was also involved in the H2I cars, as it has quite the resume. Its two buildings comprise 160,000 square-feet; the campus was opened in 1999 and is dedicated to battery and fuel cell research, development and prototyping.
Two facilities make up the Honeoye Falls, Battery and Fuel Cell Campus with on site capability for materials development and integration, engineering development, controls and software development, as well as prototyping of complete battery and fuel cell systems.
There GM’s more than 360 employees presently earning around $29 million in annual wages are building on the company’s proud R&D legacy that it would like to ultimately see pay off.
So when the “epicenter” of GM’s fuel cell activities foes away, where does that leave the project? CNN recently took a dismal view of fuel cells:
First, hydrogen fuel cell cars are expensive.
“The systems will cost more than many of the other powertrains that are out there today because these are first generation technologies,” said Charles Freese, who heads hydrogen vehicle development for GM.
The other big problem for hydrogen cars is “infrastructure” which, in this case, means hydrogen filling stations. Bottom line: If you don’t live near Los Angeles, you’ll probably have a tough time filling up.
“The earliest the infrastructure becomes viable is 2015 or 2016,” said GM’s Freese, “and that’s debatable.”
The trouble is that, while hydrogen cars and plug-in cars will improve, so will gasoline cars, (Environmental Defense Fund’s John) DiCicco said. In the end, more fuel efficient, cleaner-burning gasoline vehicles could leave car buyers little reason to embrace more expensive exotic technologies.
Someday hydrogen’s time may come, DiCicco said. But not as soon as 2015 or 2016.
It’s possible the closure of the Honeoye Falls plant means nothing at all. In 2003, the Rochester Business Journal wrote about hopes the fuel cell plant could attract related factories:
(GM engineer Matthew) Fronk added GM fuel-cell employees work with researchers worldwide. The facility’s location in Honeoye Falls is not that big a deal.
“Location isn’t really that critical to us,” he said.
Links of the Day:
– Middle skill jobs are evaporating in Upstate New York.
– Colleges claim to be bastions of free speech, but students really don’t like when others practice it. Brockport newspapers disappear from campus.
– The horror! Starbucks is running out of its pumpkin spice flavoring, used in its famous fall lattes.